By John Wilbert/NEMS Daily Journal
With high school baseball teams being allowed to play games in the month of June and American Legion Baseball upping its age limit from 18 to 19, the summer baseball landscape has changed in Mississippi.
More high-school-age players are sticking with their high school teams in the summer, while the Legion teams are starting to resemble college teams.
“The main thing, since we upped the age limit, is that we weren’t able to keep most of the younger kids,” said Kirk Presley, the 36-year-old coach of the Tupelo 49ers Legion team. “But at the same time it allowed us to hang onto the older kids.
“Three years ago, it was mainly guys who just graduated from high school and three or four would-be (high school) seniors that would make up the rest of the roster.”
Nonetheless, summer baseball being played in the state is just as competitive, if not more, than it has ever been – which may be somewhat surprising considering the circumstances.
Coupled with fewer junior and senior Legion teams in existence due to the abundance of high school squads staying together in the summertime, the increasing popularity of travel ball/showcases and the advent of the summer Cotton States Baseball League in New Albany for college baseball players, these area Senior Legion teams have gotten to be highly selective in choosing their players.
“I’d say 95 percent of those kids have an opportunity to play college ball somewhere,” former Booneville Braves Legion coach Shane Sanderson said about today’s Legion players in Northeast Mississippi.
Added longtime Pontotoc Red Sox coach Nickey Browning, “College kids is mostly what it is … whether they play for Delta State or for the junior college programs in the area.
“I always have four or five college players.”
As far as summer high school baseball goes, there’s tournaments such as the Northeast Mississippi Coaches Association For Better Baseball’s Summer Championship, which involves 23 teams throughout Northeast Mississippi and began Thursday and lasts through Monday.
“It’s just good to keep your kids together,” Sanderson, a former high school coach now turned athletic director, said about high school teams resuming play – without those senior players who recently graduated, of course – after their spring seasons had ended.
“I think it’s great. It allows the younger kids and high school kids a chance to still be able to play in the summer, and it’s more of an opportunity to keep the kids together.”
New Albany High baseball coach John Walker said he has three of his current players playing for both his high school team and an American Legion team this summer.
Brandon Woodruff, a Mississippi State signee and a fifth-round draft pick by Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers, is in his second season with the 49ers after playing for the Booneville Braves his first two years.
Woodruff – who had spent part of previous summers playing games with his Wheeler High team and is also a product of travel ball – is one of 11 players on the 49ers roster who ended their high school careers this spring, including Amory and fellow Mississippi State signee Will Cox.
Presley said four players on this summer’s squad will be entering their senior years of high school in the fall and three had just concluded their freshman year of college.
“It’s gotten so darn competitive, especially with those kids who have a year of college ball under themselves,” Sanderson said about today’s Legion circuit, which no longer includes a team out of Booneville. “It’s hard not to use those kids who still have eligibility left (to play Legion).”
Sanderson added that his Booneville Legion team was one of the youngest in terms of the collective age of its players, and his team didn’t have nearly as large of a recruiting area that Tupelo and Pontotoc maintain to have first dibs on certain players.
“We’d get a kid that Kirk (Presley) was not ready to use yet,” Sanderson said about utilizing players from the Tupelo area that Presley didn’t have room for. “Certainly the older kids are much more of a benefit to Nickey (Browning) and Kirk.”
Change of course
With that being the case, the summer baseball circuit in Mississippi is indeed a changed one.
“There are a lot less teams now,” said Browning, who’s been involved with Legion baseball for 38 seasons. “Years ago there were over 100 teams, both senior and junior legion teams.
“It has completely dropped off. We now might have 13 or 14.”
Browning added that in the past many of the high school coaches – who now enjoy the benefits of coaching their high school teams in June – would coach Legion teams in the summer, and that Legion ball was – and still is to a degree – one of the “more premier” brands of baseball played in the U.S., even in spite of rising costs to operate a program.
Meanwhile, after coaching Legion ball for six seasons, Sanderson is now spending his second straight summer without a Legion team to coach.
“It’s kind of nightmarish,” Sanderson said about the current state of Legion baseball in Mississippi. “With the Cotton States League and high schools playing in the summer, there’s a lot of baseball going on, and that’s a good thing, though.”
Contact John Wilbert at 678-1572