Baseball season is finally upon us.
I enjoy basketball as much as the next guy, but once football season is over -- although it never truly ends, I suppose... -- if we can't have a hockey team on the Coast then let there be baseball!
Junior colleges are already several weeks into their seasons; high schools play jamborees this weekend and start in earnest next week; spring training kicks off soon with the Shuckers playing the Brewers on April 2; and the college season begins this weekend. This is baseball heaven as far as I'm concerned.
2. Winter reading
Never miss a local story.
To prep for the season I read Rick Cleveland's wonderful Boo Ferriss book, 'Boo: A life in baseball, well lived.' If you haven't already, I can't recommend reading it enough. It touches on Ferriss' upbringing in the Delta, his days at Mississippi State, his remarkable debut with the Boston Red Sox and, of course, his time leading Delta State's baseball program. It also has a strong Coast tie-in with one of Ferriss' best players, Barry Lyons, featured prominently within the pages.
3. Familiar faces, new places
Highlighting the coaching changes on the Coast, long-time Biloxi coach Kevin Burdine has taken over Bay High's program, while the Indians brought in successful coach Eddie Lofton to head up their program.
I'm interested to see how both teams respond to their new coaches.
Lofton wasted no time once arriving from Clinton. This offseason he spruced up Biloxi's stadium and has made an emphasis for his kids to support other pro
grams -- they were often the loudest (and rowdiest, with chants of "SOCCER!") fans at Biloxi's soccer games. Lofton, along with Cragin Gilbert at D'Iberville, also implemented an alumni game in an effort to better connect with the program's past.
At Bay, Burdine should add a degree of stability to a program that's looking to make strides in the right direction. On the field, catcher Tristan Hopgood will provide leadership. The Pearl River C.C. signee was an All-Region 8-4A selection last year after hitting .320.
4. Early favorites
Probably no surprise here but with St. Stanislaus' Greer Holston transferring to IMG Academy, Gulfport's Alex Nelms and George County's Walker Robbins are likely the preseason favorites for the Coast's Player of the Year.
Nelms, a Southern Miss signee, will anchor a talented Gulfport team that boasts a handful of junior college signees. Perfect Game has Nelms ranked as the sixth-best right-hander in the state after posting a 1.98 ERA with 56 strikeouts and 10 walks in 56 2/3 innings as a junior.
Not only is Robbins ranked as the top prospect in Mississippi, but the Mississippi State signee also ranked No. 22 nationally by Perfect Game. Robbins hit .348 with four homers and a .608 slugging percentage as a junior. He also was a southpaw, boasting an 8-2 record with a 1.47 ERA, striking out 82 against 22 walks in 57 innings from the left side. With production like that, Robbins can essentially pick his position at the next level, whether that's at MSU or in the minor leagues. Brandon Davis likes the crew who will surround Robbins this year. After moving up to Class 6A, the Rebels won't clash with 2015 5A champ Oxford, but GCHS could end up being one of the top teams in the state once the dust settles on the season.
Other players, like Pascagoula's Hayden Hamm, Harrison Central's Dillon Morgan and Biloxi's Elijah Nelson, will undoubtedly jump up as the high school season progresses, but keep an eye on the lead Admiral and Rebel for the top Coast honor.
5. Plenty of power
Speaking of Coast standouts, pay attention to former Harrison Central masher Bobby Bradley. He didn't experience the usual learning curve once he signed with the Cleveland Indians after being drafted in the third round of the 2014 draft. After hitting .361 with eight homers and a .652 slugging percentage in 39 games with the Arizona League Indians in his pro debut, all Bradley did last year was crush 27 homers at Low Class-A Lake County in 2015 -- the most by a teenager in the Midwest League in 50 years. Like with any power hitter, strikeouts are a bit of an issue for Bradley as he struck out almost 32 percent of the time last year. But as he continues to mature and climb the ranks, he should improve his strikeout rate. The Indians promoted Bradley to Class-A Lynchburg at the end of last season. Expect him to open the year back in the Carolina League with the possibility of finishing 2016 in Double-A.
6. Shaking out the Shuckers
Part of the fun of having a minor league team in town is keeping track of the prospects who come through.
No surprise here, but the Biloxi Shuckers who take the field for the April 2 scrimmage against parent club Milwaukee Brewers will look considerably different from the squad that endured the 54-game road trip.
Many of the players have either "graduated" from Double-A, like stud shortstop Orlando Arcia and ace Jorge Lopez. Others, like first call-up Tyler Wagner have been dealt.
Nothing is set in stone yet, but Brewers beat reporter Tom Haudricourt expects outfielder Brett Phillips, who spent 23 games in Biloxi after being acquired from Houston, to open the year in Triple-A. The good news is Haudricourt expects the Brewers' recently-acquired top catching prospect Jacob Nottingham -- how's about that last name? -- to open the year on the Coast.
Originally a sixth-round selection by Houston in 2013, Baseball America compares Nottingham as a Mike Napoli-type player; his defense needs work but he's got plenty of power potential.
7. Quick Jaguar
Don't be surprised to see former D'Iberville speedster Dylan Hardy get early playing time at South Alabama.
Although he's moving from the infield to the outfield, and the Jaguars return several letterwinners and brought in two junior college outfielders, USA coach Mark Calvi has consistently complimented the former Warrior.
Preseason Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year Cole Billingsley has center field locked down, but Hardy should see time in the corners and on the base paths as a pinch runner.
"Hardy has done a good job in left field; he was a second baseman in high school but he can really run and we are converting him into an outfielder," Calvi said in the team's outfield preview.
As a senior, Hardy, who will wear No. 19 at USA, hit .345 with 16 stolen bases. He hit .393 and stole 31 bases as a junior.
8. Top JUCOs
Both of the Coast's JUCO baseball programs are off to hot starts. Rodney Batts' crew is 5-1 and has already scored 50 runs in six games. They've had to rally in several of the wins, however, so finding more consistency in with their starting pitching is a must. Still, the Bulldogs can't help but be happy with their start, especially since they have to trek to MGM Park for the bulk of their home games.
Former Ocean Springs standout Marcus Buckley has been a key to Gulf Coast's offensive success. The second baseman is hitting .391 with two doubles, four RBIs and a stolen base.
Pearl River is 8-2 on the year and recently had sophomore catcher Carter Hankins named the MACJC Player of the Week.
Hankins hit .421 on the week, driving in 13 runs as PRCC went 5-1 in double headers. Hankins also hit four homers -- three coming Friday night against Southwest Tennessee in a 15-9 victory.
Elsewhere in the state, former West Harrison ace Jacques Pucheu is off to a hot start at East Mississippi. In 8 1/3 innings, Pucheu is 0-1 but boasts a 2.16 ERA and 11 strikeouts.
9. The (other) Patrick's picks
Why wait to get my predictions wrong? Here's a couple bold predictions with spring training around the corner: The Kansas City Royals won't make their third straight World Series -- and the Chicago Cubs won't win their first world series wince 1908 ... The Texas Rangers get Yu Darvish back, among other injured arms, and will get back to the World Series. In the National League, the Washington Nationals overcome the hire of manager Dusty Baker and Bryce Harper will lead his team to a World Series title.
As always, thanks for reading.
Patrick Ochs, a Sun Herald sports reporter, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or followed on Twitter at PatrickOchs.