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Co-Lin, Southwest ready for Challenge

Are you ready for some baseball?

The cold, damp clutches of Old Man Winter are slowly losing their grip on the Magnolia State. It has been a long, cold, wet winter…Mississippi style that is.

The crack or plunk of the bat connecting with a ball can be heard around the state, especially in Lincoln County and the surrounding area. Ancient community college archrivals Southwest and Co-Lin are anxious to renew their baseball rivalry Saturday at Summit.

It’s officially known as the Eighth Annual Coke Powerade Challenge. Doubleheaders Saturday at Southwest and April 13, at Co-Lin; will determine which team wins the bat trophy. Co-Lin won 3 of the 4 encounters last season to reclaim the coveted prize, plus bragging rights for one year.

Co-Lin head coach Keith Case is in his swan song season at the helm of Wolfpack baseball fortunes and he would like nothing more than winning another series against the Bears. For sure, the rivalry is intense.

Robbie Hamilton and Neal Randall, the two main characters in the “Chasing Foul Balls” sports radio talk show, put their heads together nearly a decade ago. What could be done to increase interest and coverage of junior college baseball in this area?

Hamilton decided a special promotion of the Southwest versus Co-Lin series would be the answer. He solicited corporate sponsorship and received favorable, even enthusiastic support from the community. Administrators from both institutions of higher learning got on the bandwagon.

“We wanted the baseball games to be fun, a family experience,” said Randall. Financially, both Co-Lin and Southwest have benefited. Over the years, $16,000 have been contributed to scholarship funds. Each school receives a $1,000 donation from the major sponsor each year.

Coach Case, in his 21st season at Co-Lin, said he appreciated the corporate support. “We want to thank Coke for the $1,000. Our program can use the help. We appreciate the coolers and the money. What you have done is put some fire on the rivalry.”

Case complimented Co-Lin president Dr. Ronnie Nettles who was present for the media conference. “Dr. Nettles is one of the best baseball friends we have.”

Gary Nelson, On Premise and Sales Manager for the McComb Coca-Cola Bottling Co., expressed his appreciation and enthusiasm for the Powerade Challenge. “We welcome the opportunity to provide sponsorship for this event. It’s a community project. We also want to thank the media for all their coverage.”

The participating teams are provided with Powerade coolers, stocked with Powerade. Families are encourage to come out and enjoy the games. There are prizes and T-shirts to be given away. Folks can sign up for a chance to win autographed baseballs.

Saturday’s first pitch is 2 p.m.

Co-Lin sophomore outfielder Gabe Wilson of Brookhaven has had a taste of the rivalry and said he enjoys it. “It’s always real competitive. The players always play hard, no matter what the record.”

For the record, both teams are coming off South Division Wednesday road losses. Southwest stands at 9-15 overall and 0-4 in the South. Co-Lin is 13-10 and 3-3.

Sophomore catcher Jonathan Santana agreed. “This is a pretty good series.”

Teammate and pitcher Caleb Dugas is a transfer from U-AB but he has heard all about it. “I’m looking forward to it.”

Southwest head coach Lee Kuyrkendall said his team has had a season of ups and downs. Injuries to his pitchers have been devastating. Jason Milton, his top returning pitcher, had to have Tommy John surgery in the fall. Milton is expected back in 2014.

“This is the third straight season for us to lose our No. 1 or No. 2 (pitchers),” said Kuyrkendall. “We have a good group of guys who work hard and play hard.”

Southwest sophomore Dylan Gregorie is a southpaw pitcher from Baton Rouge. Teammates Kade Scivicque, Brandon Austin and Chris Gill listened intently to Gregoire’s comments.

“I’m excited for our freshmen to play in it,” said Gregoire, who had a medical redshirt last season. “Everybody looks forward to playing Co-Lin. I’m looking forward to the crowd. It’s a good environment. You really don’t know the true meaning of the rivalry until you play in it.”

Obviously, Gregoire would make a great spokesman for the Powerade Challenge.

Under the new, unrestricted recruiting rules implemented by the Mississippi Association of Community/Junior Colleges, member schools don’t have specific recruiting districts. No longer can a number of in-district players be placed on a protected list.

In other words, MACJC member schools from northern Mississippi can recruit players living on the Gulf Coast and vice versa. Co-Lin and Southwest coaches often cross paths and battle for a coveted player’s signature on a scholarship. In Co-Lin’s case, southpaw pitcher Shane McKinley of Tylertown and McComb Parklane Academy opted for the Wolfpack.

By contrast, two Brookhaven stars, outfielder Drew Jones and pitcher Dylan Newell, signed with Southwest last spring. Jones is seeing duty with the Bears this year. Newell was projected as a starter in the Bears’ rotation last December but instead decided to withdraw from Southwest and enter the military.

Once upon a time, recruiting in the MACJC was a relaxed task. Nowadays, it’s an intense, dog-eat-dog situation in all sports. Schools with the larger coaching staffs and heftier recruiting budgets have the advantage.

In other words, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. The Haves have more and the Have-nots have less. Co-Lin head football coach Glenn Davis almost bit a chunk out of his office desk when he first talked to me about the unrestricted recruiting rules installed by MACJC presidents. In his opinion, it was totally unfair to the smaller schools with tighter athletic budgets.

To his credit, Davis and his coaching staff directed the Wolfpack to an MACJC State Championship last November. The Wolves authored miraculous, back-to-back, comeback wins over East Mississippi and Gulf Coast in the state playoffs.

Co-Lin’s blue-collar work ethic rewarded them with a state title, the first since 1985. Team members are expected to receive their championship rings in the near future.

Contact sports editor Tom Goetz by Email: tom.goetz@dailyleader.com