Feb. 22, 2008


A Renaissance is on in the SWAC and MEAC

By Chuck Curti


Special to CollegeBaseballInsider.com


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click here for SWAC coaches' survey results


As Mississippi Valley State coach Doug Shanks looks around the Southwestern Athletic Conference, he likes the scenery.


He sees a traditional power like Southern University, the first historically black school to win an NCAA tournament game. He sees the new bully on the block at Prairie View A&M, the two-time defending SWAC champion. He sees vastly improved programs at Grambling and Arkansas-Pine Bluff. He sees schools like Jackson State and Texas Southern with a stable of fine athletes. He sees improving facilities. He sees better attendance. He sees higher-caliber players.


“We’re having a renaissance here in the SWAC,” drawls Shanks, who has the conference’s preseason player of the year in first baseman Sean Bard.


Southern coach Roger Cador agrees that competition is getting tougher.


“This is going to be one of the most competitive years just to get out of the West (division),” Cador said.


That level of competitiveness also will apply to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. Bethune Cookman captured yet another title last year, but it got a serious challenge from North Carolina A&T. Improved squads at Norfolk State and Delaware State present more hurdles to the top of the conference.


And with Robert Lucas back coaching at Florida A&M – he won 96 games and three MEAC titles while coaching FAMU from 1986-91 -- the Rattlers promise to be a tough out as well.


The renaissance is on at Division I HBCUs, and after a season that saw 11 players drafted – the most since 2004 – and one more sign as a free agent, 2008 offers plenty of promise.


Many of the top players in both leagues are back, and Major League scouts should have plenty to see over the next three months. They might want to start at Mississippi Valley.


Bard returns after hitting .376 with nine homers and 52 RBIs last season. Over the summer, he hit .311 in the Alaska Baseball League, one of the nation’s premier wooden-bat leagues for college players.


“He’s an exceptional hitter,” said Shanks. “He hardly ever wastes an at bat.”


Shanks said Bard is still recovering from a first-semester bout with mono but that he is nearly back to his playing weight of 225.


Two Delta Devil newcomers are also on the scouts’ radar: second baseman Jeff Squire and right fielder Willie Mays, who even wears No. 24 like his famous namesake.

Shanks said Mays (6-1, 205) is the highest-ranked recruit ever to play at MVSU. He’s already been drafted twice: once out of high school in Kentucky, where he was a two-time state player of the year, and once out of junior college.


“He’s got all the tools,” said Shanks. “He’s a big, strong, strapping kid with a plus arm and unbelievable bat speed. His ceiling is way up there.”


On the subject of familiar names, Curt Ford Jr. also will be suiting up for Shanks this season. His father, Curt Sr., was the SWAC player of the year at Jackson State and played in the majors from 1985-90, including on the St. Louis Cardinals’ 1987 NL championship team.


Squire, a transfer from Northeast Colorado Junior College, is 6-foot-3 with a strong arm and, Shanks said, “runs like a deer.”


Coupled with what Shanks believes is his best pitching staff he’s had at MVSU, the Delta Devils could be a force.


But to get to the top of the SWAC, the Delta Devils and every other team will have to go through Prairie View.


“We’ve got this big bull’s-eye on our back,” said head coach Michael Robertson. “We can’t take anything for granted. It’s difficult when you’re on top.


“But our kids respond to it. When you win, it makes a world of difference. Nobody wants to be the team that drops the ball.”


The two-time defending conference champs lost three key offensive players in Michael Richard and Calvin Lester (drafted) and Robbie Tolan (free agent) along with pitching victories leader Matthew Chase. Robertson believes, however, that as difficult as those losses will be, he has enough players capable of filling the gaps.


On the mound, Wrandal Taylor, a senior and the SWAC preseason pitcher of the year, will continue to be the staff workhorse and the first guy Robertson sends out for a conference series.


One major change for PVAM will be the presence of a true closer. Josh Lara, who was the third starter last year, will move into that role, and he gave a preview of how effective he might be when he struck out the side against Southern last year in the final game of the SWAC championship series.


Offensively, the Panthers will rely on senior Wilford White, a preseason all-conference first-teamer, and Myrio Richard, Michael’s younger brother, who hit .331 with 35 RBI and 23 steals last year.


As Robertson noted, his team isn’t taking another title for granted. That’s mainly because he knows that Southern will be lurking.


Southern placed three players on the preseason all-conference first team: pitcher Jarrett Maloy, catcher Michael Thomas and first baseman Calvin Anderson. Cador expects Anderson, 6-7, 250 pounds and the son of former NFL player Fred Anderson, to have a breakout season after he hit .362 with six homers last year.


“Calvin ought to explode,” said Cador. “He has improved so much so fast.”


Cador calls Thomas “one of the premier catchers in the whole country.” His strong arm, said Cador, can get the ball to second base in 1.75 seconds.


“In a league where base stealing is an issue, he keeps everyone at bay for us.”

Cador said his team should be stronger defensively up the middle, and despite losing three pitchers to the 2007 draft, he said he has as many as nine people who can eat up innings on the mound.


While Cador believes that his Jaguars and PVAM will indeed be in the hunt for the conference title, he’s not quick to count out several other potential players.


“The team that’s come on the quickest is Pine Bluff,” he said. “And the team I always think about, position by position … Texas Southern has as many players as anyone. If they play together, Texas Southern can beat anyone.”


TSU features preseason all-conference selections Adam Sellers (infield), who hit .336 last year; Kyle Smith (outfield), who hit .360 last year; and second-teamer Deshaun Dilworth.


Pine Bluff’s primary weapon will be its pitching staff, led by preseason all-conference selection Justin Moring, who won seven games a year ago and had an ERA under 5.00. Righties Justin Clark and Joe Cook and lefty Chris Wallace, who is the quarterback for Pine Bluff’s football team, give coach Michael Bumpers a formidable staff.


Bumpers took over the team midway through last season and led UAPB to the conference tournament. For his first full season as the head coach, he’s feeling much more comfortable.


“If we continue to build on what we did last year, we should be decent,” he said. “We’ve had all fall to adjust to everything. We’re pretty much on the same level now, and they know exactly what I want.”


And Grambling is not to be written off. In Barrett Rey’s first season as head coach, the Tigers went from a six-win team in 2006 to 18 wins in 2007. But had the Tigers won a 19th game, they would have made the SWAC tournament.

Rey aims to correct that this year. He has the likes of preseason all-conference second-teamer Justin Kelly, Michael Roby, Mario Jefferson and newcomer Jeremy Shelby, son of former major-leaguer John Shelby, to spearhead the effort.


“I feel much better about (this year) because I had a full year of recruiting,” said Rey. “I was actually able to bring in some baseball guys. We’re going to struggle early, but I think by the middle or end of the year, we’ll start to peak.


“I really feel this year I can sneak up on some people.”


Jackson State, with preseason all-conference picks Cortez Cole (OF. .357, 31 RBI in 2007), Nicholas Stewart (P, 8-6) and LaDerek Camper (INF, .305, 54 R), and Alcorn State with Darryl Jordan (P, 5-4) and Brandon Pierce (INF, .351, 28 RBI) also will be in the mix.


Bard may have claimed the preseason’s top player honor, but Alabama A&M’s LaDale Hayes might have something to say about that come May. Hayes hit .302 with 20 extra-base hits, 30 runs and 20 RBI last year. Hayes is on the Wallace Preseason Watch List, along with Grambling’s Kelly, for college player of the year.


Holdovers like Hayes will carry the teams of the SWAC. At Division I independent Savannah State, coach Carlton Hardy will turn to several newcomers – mostly on the pitching staff -- to try and duplicate last season’s 31 victories.


Chief among the new faces will be freshman pitchers Michael Allegretti and D.J. Jones. Offensively, the Tigers will be led by junior Brandon Javis (.318, 7 HR, 37 RBIs) and senior outfielder Glen Wormley (.311).


“We’ll be pretty strong offensively,” said Hardy. “Our offense will carry us early in the season. Our new pitchers will be able to make a contribution and not have the pressure of thinking they have to throw a shutout.”


First year head coach Husain Mahmoud looks to rebuild Chicago State as they begin another year as an independent.  The tough and heavy travel schedule will have the Cougars facing six HBCU opponents and the likes of Notre Dame.  Senior Luke Grow and the fourteen additional newcomers look to hit the ground running in the HBCU Classic hosted by Savannah State.


North Carolina Central also will be playing an independent Division I schedule this year with the likelihood of joining the MEAC in the near future looming. NC Central had a solid 2007 after resurrecting its baseball program for the first time in 30 years. NCC played in the Division II CIAA last season and posted a 15-5 conference mark while going 21-24 overall.


Last season, the Eagles were led by freshmen Justin Goodson (.352), Kurt Wilson (.328), Oliver Jenkins (.318) and Mike Weathersby (9-6, 4.36 ERA), and the jump to Division I should only increase the talent pool for coach Dr. Henry White.