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Northwest Opens Title Hunt Thursday: 2012 Season Preview

February 16, 2012
By Kevin Maloney of NORTHWEST MISSISSIPPI COMMUNITY COLLEGE



Northwest repositioned themselves as one of the state’s best in 2011, finishing as MACJC runners-up to Jones County. The Rangers made a return trip to the Region 23 Tournament in Goodman, losing a pair of close games to No. 2 LSU Eunice and No. 12 Jones County.

With a 31-21 overall record, the Rangers posted their 14th season with 30+ wins and first since the World Series run in 2007. While the Rangers succeeded in adding another chapter of success to the tradition of Northwest baseball, the 15 returners and 12 newcomers have unfinished business to attend to in 2012.

Northwest produced just the sixth 18-win season in north division play a year ago, sharing the championship with Holmes who received the north’s No. 1 seed into the state tournament. The division title marked the Rangers’ 23rd in school history and first since 2007. After winning the best-of-3 opening round state tournament series over East Central, 2-1, Northwest made it all the way to the state championship game in Ellisville before falling to eventual state and region champion Jones County.

After last season’s successful postseason run and a solid group of returners in 2012, the NJCAA coaches voted Northwest to finish fourth in the Region 23 preseason rankings along with Jones County (1), LSU Eunice (2) and Hinds (3).

"With what we have coming back mixed in with our new kids, I definitely think we’re capable of making a run at the World Series this year," seventh-year head coach Mark Carson said. "So much of baseball is getting hot at the right time, but it’s also having the chemistry and the personnel. We’ve got speed, power in the lineup and what we feel is a really good defensive bunch. Pitching is always the question mark and staying healthy. If we can put all those things together, we’re definitely capable of making it to Oklahoma."

Whereas Northwest never cracked the NJCAA Top 25 Poll last season, but did receive votes at one point, the Rangers had a solid defensive and offensive balance while winning 31 games. The Rangers ranked 22nd in the nation in fielding percentage (.950), second in the state and 26th nationally in batting average (.314) and stole the third-most bags in school history (104).

Behind Tarus Hervey (8-2, 3.91 ERA), Garrett Radicioni (6-4, 3.53 ERA) and Colt Burns (5-2, 4.36 ERA) among others, the Ranger pitching staff was equally as impressive in boasting a 3.77 team ERA with 10 saves and 280 strikeouts. It marked the first time since 2004 with a sub-4.00 ERA while, for just the third time in school history, the staff picked up double digit saves.

The excitement building in Senatobia is easily understood as the team returns nine starters in Bradley Noland, Dex Herrington, Jeremy Carlisle, Josh Johnson, Jimmy Braswell and Austin Overall along with Garrett Radicioni, Chris Casto and Colt Burns on the mound. Add in the experience of Justin Rose, Keaton Hankins, Kyle Blount, Luke McCullough, Jeremy Massie and Bill Higdon, and the depth in the Ranger dugout alone is something to be optimistic about.

"As we enter the season, our number one priority is to win the north," Carson said. "I think you set out your season in steps, and that’s the first one. Everyone is very balanced this year and have brought in new and talented freshmen and it’s going to be a difficult task. The parody is going to be very, very good."

The Rangers welcome 12 new additions to the squad, including pitchers Nolan Ryan, Mitchell Flowers, Reed Davis, Phillip Malatesta, Cody Reed and Jim Tom Copeland, catchers Cody Carson and J.D. Tackett, infielders Garrett Blaylock and Drew Pratt and outfielders Phillip Correro and Walt McCullough. Ryan and Malatesta are both transfers from Southwest Mississippi CC and Arkansas State, while the other 10 are all incoming freshmen who will play huge roles, including several who will earn starting positions.

Northwest will have the luxury of playing 14 of its first 18 games of 2012 at Ranger Field in Senatobia, where they’ll debut lights for the first time in the school’s 84-year baseball history.

"Adding lights will relax our kids a little more on gameday," Carson said. "We felt a little rushed before because of daylight. This will also give our parents and fans a chance to be here with a later start time and get more people in the stands. How many people this yields will be determined, but I told our guys that if you want people to come out then you have to have a good product on the field worth watching."

Northwest will depend on its leadership and experience as it makes a run at the program’s fourth trip to the NJCAA World Series and first since 2007.

The Ranger offense has been pretty consistent over the past five years under the guidance of hitting instructor and seventh-year assistant Bill Selby. Four of the past five seasons, Northwest has finished in the top 30 in the nation in batting average, including ranking 26th last year at a .314 clip. The Rangers also finished fifth in 2007 (.357), 15th in 2008 (.343) and 30th in 2009 (.326).

"Anytime you have a guy on your staff that has done it at the highest level, that attracts respect," Carson said. "Bill is a doer, not a talker. With his longevity in the game and the wealth of knowledge he brings, it’s a huge plus to our program. He’s involved in every aspect of our team and is the total package."

Northwest had eight regular starters hit better than .310 throughout the 2011 season, including five with a mark of .330 or better. In addition, 13 different Rangers hit a home run, led by Jeremy Carlisle who tied for first in the state in the regular season with eight long balls. Northwest’s 468 total hits in 2011 rank fifth in single-season school history, while their 13 triples and 88 doubles rank second and 10th, respectively. 

A total of eight Rangers were named to the 2011 MACJC All-State Team, led by Chad Wardlaw, Drew Griffin, Dex Herrington and Bradley Noland, while second team honors went to Jeremy Carlisle, Tarus Hervey, Garrett Radicioni and Drew Klepzig. Wardlaw and Griffin were also named All-Region 23 at season’s end, with Wardlaw just the second Ranger in school history to win or share the batting title twice in a career (Taylor Walker, 2007-08). 

The Ranger defense finished with a .950 fielding percentage, the sixth-best in the last 13 seasons and 22nd nationally a year ago. The squad set a new school record with 20 pickoffs and turned 39 double plays, while the trio of Klepzig, Joseph Blair and Justin Rose behind the plate also combined to throw out 26 of 65 runners. Northwest will have to replace a bulk of its defense this year.

"Anytime you lose the middle of your diamond, you’ve lost the core of your defense," Carson said. "With Drew (Griffin) being able to play short and pitch, it’s awfully hard to replace a guy like that. Add in Chad (Wardlaw), who did so many of the intangibles, he just had that baseball instinct."

Mark Carson enters the 2012 season with a career record of 172-130-2 (.569) and is on pace to become just the third coach in the program’s 84-year history to win 200 games in a career.

"I love this place," Carson said. "The Clarion-Ledger did an article on me back when I was at Southern Mississippi, and it’s in print that I always wanted to be the head coach at Northwest. This is home. This is where I grew up and I have so many relationships here. I enjoy coming to work every day and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else."

First pitch of the 2012 season is set for Thursday, Feb. 16 at 2 p.m. against Jackson State (Tenn.).


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