Crusaders Set to Host 2023 SSAC Baseball Championship
By Stan Caldwell
HATTIESBURG – For the first time since joining the Southern States Athletic Conference in 2009, William Carey University is hosting the conference baseball tournament.
Milton Wheeler Field on the WCU campus will be the site of some of the best small college baseball in the country when the SSAC brings its tournament to town.
Action begins Wednesday at 10 a.m. and is scheduled to run through the championship round on Saturday. The tournament champion gets an automatic bid to the NAIA National Tournament, which begins in mid-May.
“It’s been a long time since we hosted one,” said longtime Carey head coach Bobby Halford. “A lot of conferences now are going to neutral sites. We’ve been to Mobile, we’ve been to Montgomery and we’ve been to Columbus, Georgia.
“Used to, the team that won the regular season would host it, but they couldn’t find a suitable neutral site this year. So, they said our field was better than any other one around.
The Crusaders will come into the tournament riding the crest of a dominant season in conference play. No. 12 (NAIA) Carey is 40-7 and 22-2 in the SSAC. Even considering two forfeited losses, it is an impressive record.
The Crusaders will open tournament play at 7 p.m. Wednesday against eighth-seeded Blue Mountain Christian (25-23). WCU has won nine straight games and 22 of its last 25 on the field.
“I don’t think there’s any pressure on this team,” said Halford. “Not at all. This group loves to play the game, they love playing with each other, and they’re hungry. That’s just the way we have to play. We want them to stay hungry.”
“One thing that has surprised me this year is how everybody has contributed all through the lineup. Usually, it’s your top four or five that have the biggest impact, but the back end of our order has done a great job. We don’t have any easy outs.”
Indeed, Carey will count on its NAIA nationally-ranked offense to win a third consecutive SSAC Tournament title. The Crusaders improved their offensive statistics in a three-game wipeout of Loyola-New Orleans this past weekend, 11-1 on Thursday, then 13-2 and 13-3 on Friday.
“It means a lot having already won it,” said junior Jake Lycette, who carries a .357 batting average into the tournament, along with 21 stolen bases in 22 attempts.
“We know how to win it, what it takes to win it. I think it’s big for the program as a whole to win a third straight title.”
The 37 runs pushed Carey past the old single-season record of 510 runs, set in 2017, the year the Crusaders advanced to the NAIA World Series. WCU’s 512 runs is sixth in the NAIA and their .342 team batting average is good for 14th in the nation.
Of the team’s 40 wins, the Crusaders scored 10 or more runs 25 times and topped 20 runs in three wins.
Junior R.J. Stinson leads the team with a .421 average, 16 doubles, 10 home runs a team-high 64 runs-batted-in, despite hitting in the leadoff position in the batting order.
“I think we’ve done a good job all year of producing runs,” said Stinson. “Me being the leadoff guy, it’s my job to get things started. Then when we come through the lineup, there are usually RBI opportunities when it comes back around to me.”
Senior Patrick Lee leads Carey with 13 homers and his 54 RBIs is third on the team behind Stinson and Lycette, who has 57. Lee sat out the Loyola series with a slight hamstring injury, but he said he’ll be ready to go on Wednesday.
Lee is in his fifth season in the Carey program, and getting to play the conference tournament at home in his final season is gravy on a fine career.
“It’s an advantage hosting the tournament,” said Lee. “In my five years here, we’ve never hosted a conference tournament, so that’s big, especially with it being my senior year. So it is an advantage, but you still have to play the game.”
WCU smashed seven home runs against Loyola, bringing its season total to 67, a high number for the Crusaders given the size of Milton Wheeler Field, a pitcher’s park where the ball doesn’t carry well at certain times. Lee said that is no accident.
“Coach (Eric) Ebers got us in the weight room hard this spring,” said Lee. “And we hit the weights pretty hard in the fall. Now, we’ve been working on maintaining that and keeping from losing that edge.”
Carey’s pitching struggled to find itself in the first few weeks of the season, but the staff has solidified, and the Crusaders will enter the postseason with a 4.94 team earned-run average, after sitting above 5.00 for most of the season.
Senior right-hander A.J. Stinson appears to have gotten over some arm fatigue that sidelined him for a few games in early April. But he’s back on track, and he joins junior right-hander Andrew Shirah and lefty Dario Herrera to form a potent 1-2-3 pitching punch.
“I just had some tiredness in my arm; I needed to step for a little bit and regain my composure,” said Stinson. “Everybody’s been on a roll here lately. We’ve been busting our tails in practice, in the weight room. We’re just trying to figure it out and make it happen.”
Stinson is no relation to R.J. Stinson, who hails from Pine Bluff, Arkansas while A.J. is a former Hattiesburg High standout who was a key part of the Tigers’ Class 5A state championship team in 2017.
“I can visualize how it will be, but it’s really just another game,” said Stinson. “Once I throw that pitch, it’s just like any other game. I go up there with the same mentality every time. It won’t make a difference to me.”
Stinson is 5-2, with a 3.83 ERA and 76 strikeouts in 56-1/3 innings. Shirah is 8-1, with a 4.75 ERA, 63 strikeouts in a team-high 66-1/3 innings.
“We shut Snyder down for about a week because his arm was fatigued, and he came back last week and showed some good velocity, so that’s a plus for us,” said Halford. “Snyder’s a guy who can come in and give you three or four innings, so he can be a set-up guy for Ratliff.
“And we need Ratliff to hit a little bit and it’s kind of hard to be a closer and hit as well.”
“We take a lot of pride in our defense,” said Lycette. “Our pitchers are out there grinding every pitch every inning. We feel like we owe it to them. We take a lot of pride in not letting them down and finish the job of getting outs.”
Since arriving in mid-March, Lada has reunited with Hernandez, a former teammate on the Louisiana Canecutters, who won a summer league title last year. Lada previously played at Louisiana in Lafayette.
“He’s a graduate student who played with a couple of our guys, Rigoberto and Patrick Lee,” said Halford. “Then we got a call that he was interested in coming over here for his last year, so we got to work on his transfer papers. He’s really solidified our infield.”
The Crusaders are gunning for a third consecutive SSAC Tournament title, and the Crusaders say that experience should serve them well this week. And there will be no shortage of quality opposition for the Crusaders this week.
Mobile, the No. 3 seed that is ranked ninth in the country, would love to come back and avenge its three-game sweep a couple of weeks ago against WCU. Second-seeded Talladega took two of three from the Crusaders at The Milt in March, No. 4 Middle Georgia State has won nine straight games and 12 of its last 13, and of 6-seed Faulkner’s 33 losses, 11 were forfeited wins.
“They’re all good, but, honestly, I feel like, to us, we’re the only team that matters,” said Lysette. “If we play the ball we know we can play, play to the expectations that we and our coaches have for us, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
SSAC BASEBALL TOURNAMENT
At Milton Wheeler Field, Hattiesburg
Dual bracket, double-elimination
10 a.m. – Game 1, Loyola-New Orleans (25-20) vs. Middle Georgia State (30-18); 1 p.m. – Game 2, Faulkner (12-33) vs. Mobile (31-12); 4 p.m. – Game 3, Brewton-Parker (16-33) vs. Talladega (27-16-1); 7 p.m. – Game 4, Blue Mountain Christian (25-23) vs. William Carey (40-7).
10 a.m. – Game 5, Faulkner/Mobile loser vs. Brewton-Parker/Talladega loser; 1 p.m. – Game 6, Loyola/Middle Georgia loser vs. BMC/Carey loser; 4 p.m. – Game 7, Faulkner/Mobile winner vs. Brewton-Parker winner; 7 p.m. – Game 8, Loyola/Middle Georgia winner vs. BMC/Carey winner.
10 a.m. – Game 9, Game 7 loser vs. Game 5 winner; 1 p.m. – Game 10, Game 8 loser vs. Game 6 winner; 4 p.m. – Game 11, Game 7 winner vs. Game 9 winner; 7 p.m. – Game 12, Game 8 winner vs. Game 10 winner.
10 a.m. – Game 13 (if necessary), Game 12 winner vs. Game 12 loser; 1 p.m. – Game 14 (if necessary) Game 11 winner vs. Game 11 loser.
TBA – Bracket winners.