Renaissance is on in the SWAC and MEAC
By Chuck Curti
for MEAC coaches' survey results
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
“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
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.