Even before the final out was recorded in Mississippi State’s deciding College World Series clincher, the celebration began to trickle down from Omaha to nearly every corner of the Magnolia State.
Aside from the wave of celebrations and parades featuring the Bulldogs and the scores of maroon-clad fans, there was also plenty to rejoice about from baseball coaches at the junior college level, most notably inside the Mississippi Association of Community Colleges Conference.
Five former MACCC student-athletes not only graced the Bulldogs’ roster this season, but all five played vital roles in Mississippi State’s success in Omaha. Three of those players came from Northwest Mississippi Community College – Tanner Leggett, Brayland Skinner and Parker Stinnett.
For Northwest head coach Mark Carson, the emotions of watching his former players in Omaha might have been more stressful than even some of the games he has coached through his 16 years with the Rangers.
“I bit every fingernail off that I had,” Carson said. “I told someone that I felt like I was the one coaching in those games, or at least participating somehow. We have had former players on that stage in the past, but it was different knowing you had three of your guys up there at once and on the same team. At the same time, you had guys like Houston Harding from Itawamba and Preston Johnson from Hinds there as well, so it was one of those things where you knew those guys were going to have an active role at some point.”
It turns out all five had active roles, not just in Omaha, but throughout the season. The group helped spotlight the “JUCO bandits”, most notably during the June 26 walk-off win against Texas in the semifinals, where Leggett and Skinner combined to bring in the winning run and send Mississippi State to its first CWS finals appearance since 2013.
“My JUCO bandits put it together there in the ninth,” Lemonis said, in his postgame presser after the Texas victory. “Brayland Skinner steals that huge base and (I’m) so happy for Tanner Leggett. He’s been a role guy for us all year, been in and out of the lineup. It’s never easy when you’re that guy, because you want to play. Then he gets the biggest hit in the biggest moment, which means he’s still invested and still working. I couldn’t be happier for those kids.”
Even before the Texas winner, all three of Carson’s former Rangers had already proven themselves in moments throughout the season.
For Skinner, it came in his first SEC start at LSU on March 19, when the Lake Cormorant native went 3-for-3 at the plate, highlighted by a two-run towering homer in the fifth inning that broke a scoreless tie and catapulted the Bulldogs to a 6-1 victory.
It continued into the next week after Skinner mashed a triple and two RBIs in a midweek victory against North Alabama. He even reached viral status following a Superman-like slide into home plate during a 2-1 win against Kentucky on April 2.
Often used as a late defensive sub or pinch hitter, Leggett quietly played the part throughout the season, but wasn’t exempt from some big moments as well. In a whopping 19-7 midweek win against UAB on April 20, the former Northwest shortstop and Central Hinds Academy product smacked a two-run homer to left field to help put the icing on the cake in the eighth inning.
His reserve role helped Leggett improve his batting average from .118 during a COVID-shortened 2020 season to a .235 mark this year, earning 81 at-bats and 10 RBIs, while also posting 24 putouts in the infield.
Stinnett, an Oxford native, earned his fair share of calls from the bullpen throughout the season. Though he was mostly held to just an inning or two, the right-hander tossed 31 strikeouts on the year and posted a season earned run average of 2.41 in 17 appearances.
Stinnett’s most notable efforts came with a four-strikeout effort against Jacksonville State in the Bulldogs’ final midweek game of the year. In the Starkville Regional against VCU on June 5, he fanned three batters to help MSU to a 16-4 beatdown of the Rams.
Later, he would throw 1.1 frames in a win against Virginia in the Bulldogs’ second game in Omaha and a brief, rain-affected outing against Texas, roughly 24 hours before the heroics of his former Northwest teammates, Leggett and Skinner.
Five Star City, Five Star Effort
None of this came as any surprise to Carson, who has seen several former players make their own journeys to Omaha in the past. Taylor Walker (Southern Miss), Jeremy Massie (Ole Miss) and former Mississippi State pitcher Peyton Plumlee have all represented the Rangers on college baseball’s brightest stage.
In fact, flashes of the trio’s potential began to show early on when they arrived at Northwest.
“All three of them were difference makers for us,” Carson said. “Obviously, all three were incredibly talented, but they were hard workers as well. They all had their crafts that each of them excelled at.”
Although COVID-19 robbed him of his sophomore season with the Rangers, Stinnett began to turn heads during his freshman campaign in 2019. Pitching alongside his brother, Carson (who made his own Division I path to the University of Memphis), Stinnett developed into one of Carson’s primary starters, posting a team-low 2.74 ERA with a 7-3 record in 13 starts.
Stinnett finished his freshman season with 82 strikeouts, falling only six behind Oklahoma signee Dalton Fowler’s total of 88.
Leggett shined defensively during that 2019 season with a .949 fielding percentage and 22 double plays. Skinner also became a defensive standout for the Rangers in center field, while also batting .369 with five doubles, three home runs and 16 RBIs.
Their efforts and the power hitting of current Ole Miss Rebels Ben Van Cleve and Hayden Leatherwood helped propel Northwest to a 33-14 overall record and an impressive 20-8 record against conference opponents. That quickly caught the attention of several Division I coaching staffs, including Lemonis and the Bulldogs.
“When you have a great breaking ball, arm strength and a velocity in the low to mid 90s, that puts you on everyone’s radar,” Carson said, on Stinnett. “For Tanner, he was such a flashy defender that it overshadowed what he could do at the plate as well. People just saw that he could play multiple infield positions wherever he was needed. The same was true for Brayland and he got picked up (by Mississippi State) during COVID. When we talked to their staff, they knew he could run, defend and that he had a plus arm. That intrigued them and he’s certainly one of the best outfielders I have ever coached, if not the best.”
“You knew what they were going to give you every time they stepped on that field,” Carson added. “They showed up every day with a mindset of getting their work in and doing whatever it takes. At the end of the day, they were just good people with great character.”
Aside from Mississippi State itself, perhaps the biggest winner of this year’s College World Series was the MACCC as a conference.
Among the eight teams that started out in the CWS, only Mississippi State featured players from MACCC programs. Others had a handful of junior college players scattered across their rosters, but it was the Bulldogs that brought their five to the spotlight.
“Our staff have used it in recruiting for sure,” Carson said. “We have had about five or six visits since the College World Series and every time, we make sure to turn their attention to the fact that we had guys playing in Omaha. One of the things we feel like we do well at Northwest is develop players and help them move on to wherever they want to be. From here on out, people can look at banners and it will be forever etched in their minds that Northwest had three guys on the biggest stage of Division I baseball at the same time.”
For as joyous as Carson was to see his trio in Omaha, he was just as excited for his Itawamba and Hinds coaching colleagues, Rick Collier and Sam Temple, who both watched their former pitchers Harding and Johnson shine on the big stage as well.
“I’ve been coaching in this conference for 24 years as an assistant and head coach,” Carson said. “Every year, I swear this conference gets better and sometimes you ask yourself if you’re just imagining that or if it’s actually true. To me, you have some phenomenal baseball people in this league that are coaches or assistant coaches and I have no doubt that this is the best state for junior college baseball hands down.”
“There may be better programs out there in some select states,” Carson continued. “Florida, Texas, Oklahoma all have a few programs that are awfully good and so is LSU Eunice. But man for man and team for team, the state of Mississippi puts out the best junior college baseball product in the country from top to bottom.”