BLUE MOUNTAIN – Channing Walker’s next bold step in the world of academia isn’t what he expected, but college is different in Tippah County.
“I’ll be going to college with about as many people as I graduated high school with,” says Walker, a 2008 Tupelo High School graduate.
He has no problem with the numbers, especially since Blue Mountain College is helping him continue to feed a passion he’s had since grade school: Baseball.
The college announced last year it was adding baseball, softball and men’s and women’s golf to begin competition in the spring of 2011, a move that continues to expand the athletics offerings for a small private school with an enrollment of 502.
BMC, which is affiliated with the Mississippi Baptist Convention, began admitting males in 2005. It already offers men’s and women’s basketball and cross-country.
The school, which just graduated a record 118 students, is preparing to welcome its largest freshman class – one that with the new sports teams could push enrollment to 600 – and sees itself in a pattern of growth that hasn’t come about accidentally.
A study conducted by an outside group told the administration the school was not well-known in its own area.
“A lot of people had never heard of Blue Mountain College. Now, there have been intentional projects to get our name out more,” athletics director Lavon Driskell said. “Adding baseball, softball and golf gives our student body something to support in the spring, and when those athletes come to campus, they bring boyfriends, girlfriends and family. It allows an opportunity for our school to be known in a broader sense.”
The Toppers’ teams will all compete in the NAIA’s TranSouth Conference with member schools in Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas.
BMC’s proactive approach to growth benefits the area as well.
Seventy-five percent of 44 athletes signed to scholarships in the new sports – and more signees are expected – are from Northeast Mississippi.
The baseball and softball teams will play at the New Albany Sportsplex, the golf teams at Kirkwood National Golf Club in Holly Springs.
The school plans to add baseball and softball facilities and a golf practice area on the north end of its campus.
The new programs present small-college opportunities for area young people who are skilled enough to continue play, even if it’s not with Ole Miss or Mississippi State.
“It’s a chance to keep playing in front of your family in places you’re familiar with,” said Walker, who is expected to play the outfield and some catcher for BMC coach Curt Fowler.
Walker could have moved away to find a small-college program, but the transition isn’t always smooth. When it doesn’t work out, a key part of your college years are behind you.
“There are opportunities to play after junior college, but you have to move way off. A lot of times people end up transferring or quitting,” Walker said.
In these fledgling sports, the area kids are being recruited by coaches who know the area.
Softball coach Kevin Barefield also serves as Blue Mountain’s technical services director. He has been a resident of Tippah County for more than 30 years.
Fowler, who coached 10 seasons at New Albany High School before taking the Blue Mountain job, has 12 scholarships to divide among a roster that currently has 27 players, 22 from Northeast Mississippi.
Barefield’s team currently lists 14 players, nine from the area. He has 10 scholarships to work with.
Danny McKenzie, who works with the school’s news and information services, will coach men’s and women’s golf and has five scholarships to offer for each squad.
Contacts established through years of involvement in the area have helped Fowler and Barefield hit the ground running.
“Local coaches were quick to call and suggest players,” Fowler said. “The No. 1 question has been, ‘Where are we going to play,’ Then, ‘Who are we going to play.’ The competition level will be outstanding.”
Indeed, the TranSouth has a number of school’s with a high national profile including Cumberland, which just won the NAIA World Series earlier this month, going 5-0 in the tournament.
Barefield says the reaction to a new program by softball recruits has been “absolute excitement. It’s been like, ‘Wow! You’re offering me a four-year opportunity to play softball?'”
The success stories of so many area high school teams in pursuit of championships should help Fowler and Barefield minimize their growing pains, the coaches say.
“You can look at our signees and see that we’re primed and ready to put a quality team on the field,” Barefield said.
The numbers are fewer for McKenzie, the optimism no less high, however. A long-time Mississippi newspaperman, including two stints with the Daily Journal, McKenzie spent the spring hitting divisional and state golf tournaments and is trying to build the program for two years out.
“There are a lot of really good younger players. I’m starting to talk with them and let them know of our interest … really to let them know we have a program. People are still finding out about us,” he said.
The transition from enthusiast and spectator to coach is new for McKenzie.
“I’ve been very honest with folks. I’m not going to get into teaching golf. I know the fundamentals, but I’m not going to get into the technical aspect of the swing. So many of them work with local pros and have their own swing coaches. I’m not going to dismantle what they’ve been taught,” he said.
Most athletes the BMC coaches have come in contact with welcome the idea of a small-college program filling a void in the area.
Not every athlete will be the right fit at Blue Mountain College, and those who sign may find the priority structure for their sport different than at other schools.
“We’re looking for kids who have great reputations, kids who have been good players on the field but great people off the field,” Fowler said. “We have so many in our area, and that’s been great to see.”
One of those early signees is excited to continue playing baseball close to home and expects big things for the Toppers.
“I think we’re going to surprise some people in the conference,” Walker said. “I don’t think they’re going to expect what we have coming in.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Blue Mountain Spring Sports
Rosters for spring sports at Blue Mountain College, which begin competition in 2011. (As of June 15)
Brandon Cook, Myrtle
Corey Adams, North Pontotoc
Cody Brownlee, Nettleton
Cody Roberts, Pontotoc
Jake Littlejohn, Saltillo
Josh Swords, North Pontotoc
Channing Sanders, Louisville (Winston Academy)
Jared Carter, Ingomar
Colby Adams, Saltillo
Collie Michael, Houston, Tenn.
Clint Hodges, New Albany
Brent Townsend, Vina, Ala.
Matthew Kirk, Middleton, Tenn.
Parker James, Holly Springs (Marshall Academy)
Ben Wallis, Ripley
John Paul Barber, Nettleton
Blake Jollie, South Pontotoc
Nate Bell, Jackson, Mich.
Zane Treadaway, East Union
Seth Kennedy, Tishomingo County
Channing Walker, Tupelo
B.J. Johnson, Itawamba AHS
Dustin Lunn, Pontotoc
Sam Summerford, Itawamba AHS
Justin Jordon, Myrtle
Scott Moore, Desoto Central
Kyle Emison, Mooreville
Joel Rich, Southaven
Meggin Nelson, North Pontotoc
Shelby Jackson, Mooreville
Natalie Mosely, No. Little Rock, Ark.
Anna Hamilton, Ripley
Kelsey Nelson, Vardaman
Kaleigh Tackitt, Pontotoc
Halley Beckham, Adamsville, Tenn.
Sam Sagely, Alcorn Central
Kristi Hurley, Corinth
Lizzy Sherard, Southaven
Brooke Denton, Pontotoc
Heather Noe, Nettleton
Kaylee Thaxton, Middleton, Tenn.
Haylei Plummer, Batesville
Grant Burns, Waynesboro
Adam Hall, Saltillo
Brandon Robbins, Corinth
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal