“There hasn’t been a motto except for 26,” said Mississippi College baseball Head Coach Brian Owens. The Choctaws are ineligible for postseason play in the ASC and NCAA due to their transition into Division II. With 26 wins, however, the Choctaws become eligible to participate in the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) postseason.
“We’re used to going to postseason, and this group is no different,” said Owens. Since the former Mississippi State pitcher took the helm in 2007, the Choctaws have only missed the post season once (2013).
Last season, the team went 17-22, only the fifth time the Choctaws were under .500 since 1999. Owens hopes to get back to the postseason this year.
“We have to get 26 wins to get there, and so that’s what we built this whole season on. We want to ensure our spot in the postseason and move on from there,” Owens said. The Choctaws were picked to finished eighth in a preseason poll, but the skipper believes the team to be better than that.
“I know what (our players) are capable of doing, their mentalities, and how they prepare to play the games, so I don’t put a whole lot of stock into preseason polls,” Owens added. “I think our lineup is very, very balanced as far as what we’re capable of doing from the offensive side of the ball.”
The Choctaws return three seniors who had at least 90 at bats last season in catcher Zach Evans, infielder Robbie Jernigan, and outfielder Kyle Blount. Blount is the most promising returner, who led MC with a .333 batting average in 2013. He also only struck out six times in his 155 plate appearances, a team low.
“I think this team right now has shown consistency. They have the ability to put up some big numbers offensively, but I see them being more consistent,” said Owens. “In return, I think that helps our pitching staff.”
On the mound, junior Brooks Fortenberry will be back for the Choctaws after an impressive 2013 season. The right-hitting southpaw threw 60 innings on his way to gathering a team-leading four wins and a 2.85 ERA. Throwing downhill from 6’5”, he struck out a team-leading 49 batters while only walking 15.
Beyond Fortenberry, only two pitchers return with more than 10 innings of work for the Choctaws in 2013: Blake Roberts (2-4, 4.94 in 27.1 innings) and Blake McIlwain (1-2, 5.76 in 25 innings). The mound should be almost all right, with Fortenberry and freshman Michael Bagley as the only two left-handed hurlers for the Choctaws in 2014.
Fortenberry appears destined to be the club’s ace, but the rest of the starting rotation is unclear.
“We have four or five guys we’re looking at that have the capabilities of starting for us,” said Owens. The Choctaws will need a single starter for Friday games, two for Saturday doubleheaders, and a midweek starter.
“We’ll see where it all shakes out,” Owen concluded. Much like the team, Frierson Field has seen a lot of changes in the offseason, including the new Mike Rice Field House.
“It is a huge recruiting tool as far as making the transition to Division II; it’ll be a huge selling point for us,” he said. The building, set to open in March, will include a clubhouse area for players, offices, laundry facilities, training areas, and more.
Owens explained, “Having everything centrally located down at the field is going to be a big positive.”
The field house will join soccer’s Robert G.W. Girling III Field House, completed in 2010, as the most recent assets to the Choctaws. Mike Rice, who graduated from Mississippi College in 1977, now serves as a trustee to the school. In his time at MC, he played varsity football and led the Gulf South Conference in every extra base-hitting category in baseball. He was inducted into the MC Athletics Hall of Fame in 2006.
Rice is the president of Master Boat Builders, a Coden, Ala. company. The late George Steinbrenner, who bought the New York Yankees in 1973, earned his fortune in shipbuilding as well, with Kinsman Marine Transit Company and later the American Shipbuilding Company.
Hopefully, Steinbrenner’s success somehow correlates to the success of the Choctaws with the help of Rice. With all the batting averages and ERAs flying around, Owens likes to keep the game simple.
“We’ve got 40 games to play, and we need 26 wins to go to the post season, so that’s our focus.” So, save your sabermetrics because head coach Brian Owens only cares about one number. 26.
– Andy O’Brien, Sports Editor