No easy guess who’ll win Ferriss Trophy

By RICK CLEVELAND,

Most any other spring, Southern Miss ace pitcher Nick Sandlin would be a shoe-in to win the C Spire Ferriss Trophy, which goes to the most outstanding college baseball player in Mississippi.

I can just hear the late Boo Ferriss, namesake of the award, “Oh my gosh-ing” after a glance at Sandlin's remarkable statistics: 5-0 record, 1.17 earned run average, 87 strikeouts compared to six walks in over 54 innings, opponents batting average of .154. The numbers are insane. Sandlin is a sure-fire first team All American, but he has plenty of competition in the Magnolia State.

Senior first baseman Zack Shannon is having the greatest season in Delta State baseball history – and that is saying something, as Ferriss would have told you. Shannon is hitting .441 with 27 home runs, 13 doubles, two triples, and 79 runs batted in (in just 42 games). He has walked 29 times, while striking out only 20 and reaches base 53.7 percent of the times he goes to the plate. Absolutely stunning, is what it is. Says DSU coach Mike Kinnison: “He gets maybe one or two pitches to hit a game, but he doesn't miss those.”

A Delta State player has never won the Ferriss Trophy, named for the legendary Delta State coach, the father of DSU baseball. That could change with Shannon.

But then what about Ole Miss centerfielder Ryan Olenek, who hits .397 in the best baseball conference in the country. Olenek leads the Rebels in hitting, hits and doubles, but his teammate, left fielder Thomas Dillard has been even more productive with 10 doubles, two triples, eight home runs, 42 runs scored and 42 runs batted in, all that to go with a .320 batting average.

In a normal year of Ferriss Trophy competition, several pitchers on a talented, deep Ole Miss staff would be contenders. The team earned run average is 3.34, a primary reason why the nationally ranked Rebels entered the week with a sparkling 32-9 record.

Southern Miss sophomore All American Matt Wallner is enjoying a season that would have won the Ferriss Trophy in many previous years. USM coach Scott Berry calls Wallner “Big 'un.” He has produced really big numbers with a .374 batting average, 11 home runs and 47 RBI. He just might win the Conference USA triple crown. Oh yeah, and he also has four saves as a relief pitcher.

Mississippi State's Jake Mangum, who did win the Ferriss as a freshman, is having a productive junior season, leading the Bulldogs with a .339 batting average, 33 runs scored, 13 doubles, two triples and 12 stolen bases (in 13 attempts). Mangum helps the Bulldogs in so many other ways, including that he uses his speed and instincts to cover centerfield as few can. Mangum's team started slow and has really come on lately, but he has been solid and often spectacular throughout the season.

As studly as all those previously mentioned players have been, the first Mississippi player chosen in the draft might just be State's junior lefty Konnor Pilkington, whose 2-5 record gives you no idea of how effective he has been. He has a 2.95 earned run average and has recorded 67 strikeouts, compared to just 12 walks.

Important to remember is that – unlike the other C Spire outstanding player awards, chosen primarily by the media – the Ferriss trophy is chosen by professional scouts and the state's college coaches. The award is supposed to be based on college performance and not professional potential.

With all those gaudy numbers, it should come as no surprise that several Mississippi teams are competing for championships and seem shoe-ins to play into the post-season.

Ole Miss entered the week tied for first place in the SEC West. State, which seemed out of it just two weeks ago, is only two games out of first place. Nationally ranked Southern Miss narrowly leads FAU and Louisiana Tech in Conference USA race. Jackson State is tied with Alabama State for the SWAC lead. Delta State leads the Gulf South Conference and vastly improved Mississippi College is four games behind.

It's been a banner college baseball season in Mississippi. That's become the standard.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.