A lot of words can be used to describe a baseball team that starts their season with a record of 2-17. Pathetic, sorry, and unimpressive could all fall into that category. But what about the word hungry or determined? That’s highly unlikely, right?
Well, the 2017 Mississippi College baseball team obviously wasn’t one for following standard procedure. After starting their first season as full-time members of the Gulf South Conference at a mark of 2-17, the Choctaws rebounded in a big way and worked their way to a final record of 20-28, including 15-17 in the GSC.
“Last year, we were living on results and fear,” said head coach Jeremy Haworth. “We had a meeting in the locker room and decided that enough was enough and that we needed to be all in. Whether we are doing terrible and suffering together or we’re winning together, you have to ask yourself if you’re doing everything you can to be all in.”
The Choctaws finished the 2017 season on an incredible run and finished seventh in the conference. They advanced to the GSC Tournament and though they didn’t win it all, they left plenty of promise open for the future.
And that future is now. The Choctaws will start their 2018 regular season campaign on Saturday, February 3 with a three-game set against Lindenwood. After nine months of waiting to take that next step, it’s obvious that there is plenty of excitement surrounding the start of the season.
“It was awesome and I’m extremely excited to get going, especially since this is my senior year,” said senior outfielder Hunter Wilson about his offseason and his feelings about getting back to work. “I’m itching to get back out there with them since it’s my last one. I just hope it slows down.”
The Choctaws open this season with 11 straight games against non-GSC opponents before kicking off conference play in Carrollton against the University of West Georgia on Feb. 24. This season is promising to be a special one for a lot of reasons, but Coach Haworth is focused on one thing in particular: the team’s mindset.
“We’ve been doing something a lot different this year than we have in the past. We’ve always been result-driven in the past,” said Haworth. “This year, we really want to take it a little bit further of having our guys change a mindset of who they were and to really make it about doing everything in God’s name. That’s what we really wanted to focus on. So, everything we do is going to be done with our whole mind, body, and soul.
“We set standards for our guys: faith, selfless, and relentless. They have to live by those every single day. There’s been times where it hasn’t gone so well. But the deal is we learn to win together and lose together. That means when we do well, we all get to celebrate. When we don’t do so well, we fall at the same time. We’re learning that to be ultimately selfless in everything we do, it will help us be relentless going into the season.”
This new makeup and mindset is what Coach Haworth expects to drive the Choctaw baseball team through the 2018 season. And so far, it’s definitely rubbing off on his players.
“I really think that this team wants to make an impact,” said junior infielder Blaine Crim. “We just want to leave it all out there and give God the glory as much as we can. If we do that, there’s nothing really that we can worry about. If we leave it all between the lines and do everything we can, that’s all we can ask for. I think we have a bunch of guys who are willing and ready to do that. So we’ll see how it takes us.”
This Choctaws baseball team will offer plenty of new faces, including a few freshmen and transfers that joined the team over the offseason. According to Coach Haworth, these new additions could be the missing pieces that this team needs to make a serious push come early May.
“I think a lot of it is we’re filling in some holes offensively,” Coach Haworth said. “And don’t get me wrong, we’ve had a lot of success offensively here. But we have to keep that going. We’ve added some key pieces, like with Billy Cameron. He’s just a power-hitting third baseman that fills in that role that Chance Whitten left us with last year. But our pitching staff is the big one. We added some key pieces to the bullpen. We have guys that are your starters and are kind of like pace car guys. Then we feel like we have pretty good backend guys who can close out games for us.”
The Choctaws were picked seventh in this year’s GSC preseason poll and had three players selected to the preseason all-conference team: Hunter Wilson, Grant Barber, and Kyle Smith. The Choctaws are known for their offensive firepower, but struggled a bit with pitching last season. But even though none of the Choctaw pitchers made the preseason all-conference team, that doesn’t seem to bother MC junior pitcher Tommy Tabord.
“Oh yeah, for sure,” said Taborda. “All those guys show a lot of heart and they show that they want to be out there. Early on in the fall, we started off with a lot of injuries. But there were a lot of guys in the training room who were willing to get better and healthy. It just shows that they are dedicated and they are ready to buy in this year.”
The Choctaws will take on 10 different GSC opponents this season and have 30 different opportunities to claw their way up the conference ladder and make a run at the top spot. With the new recruits and new outlook, there’s plenty to be excited about for the Choctaw squad.
“The energy, for sure,” said Wilson. “I feel like the culture is starting to change. We come every day ready to work. There’s no lackadaisical efforts and everyone is on the same unit right now and ready to play.”
Wilson, Crim, and Taborda all mentioned the idea of beating as one heartbeat together as a unit this season and the potential that they can reach when they play with that synchronization.
“If we can get that one heartbeat mentality together, everything will play out and it will be fine,” Crim said.
This season is ultimately shaping up to be a special one for the Mississippi College Choctaw baseball team. It doesn’t seem like that long ago that they were in the cellar of the GSC standings and could not find their way out. But this season, not only do they have hope, but they also have a solid chance at making some serious noise around the conference and perhaps even in the College World Series. And for the team to accomplish that feat in Haworth’s third year as head coach would truly be something special.
“The culture is the biggest change for me,” Coach Haworth said. “The culture has gone 180 degrees. Just seeing guys step up to be leaders. It’s not all about the wins and losses; it’s about changing lives and being a man. I tell them all the time that God does not want their success, but rather their surrender. And once they figure that out, they will have all the success in the world. I think they’re starting to figure that out with being selfless.
“When I first got here, it had nothing to do with the team. Those guys have changed my life and the lives of the coaches, and we’ve changed each other’s lives along the way. It’s not about ‘me’ anymore; it’s what we can do for others. And that’s changed totally because of what the guys are doing out there.”
Last season was a reminder that all it takes is a little spark for a seemingly bad team to right the ship and make some noise. But now that the ship is back on track, where is it bound to go? A GSC title? Further? Now that the Choctaws have had a taste of the GSC spotlight, they are bound to want more.
“Just knowing that we’re able to do it,” Taborda said. “We didn’t really know that we could win that many games. We didn’t know that we could be good competition in the GSC. Now we have faith in that and have a lot more faith in our coaching staff and know that we can compete. Hopefully we understand at the beginning of the season that we can ride that wave and push on.”
Whatever the case may be, make sure to head out to Dickins-Scoper Baseball Stadium this spring and find out. Choctaw baseball is finally back, and it truly looks like the team has something special in the works. Chances are you won’t want to miss it.