Magic Mustards: Pearl River readies for World SeriesBy CAMAL PETRO,
Some say “magic mustards” and some use “championship golds,” but one thing is for sure, there is something special about those all-gold jerseys Pearl River donned Saturday afternoon.
The Pearl River Wildcats used an 11-2 win over No. 1 LSU-Eunice in the Region XXIII title game Saturday to advance to the NJCAA Division II World Series in Enid, Oklahoma. On that Saturday, Pearl River coach Michael Avalon dusted off the gold jersey that had sitting in a box under his desk, because after all, the tradition of those jerseys runs deep at Pearl River.
“That’s something coach (Jay) Artigues started back in 2002 when they went to the World Series for the first time,” Avalon said. “The pants were still here and the jerseys were still here, but they’re a little old. Somebody asked me if we were going to buy new ones. Heck no. As long as they’re working, we’re going to keep the magic in them and keep them going.”
The team has only worn them twice since Avalon took over three years ago – once for last year’s state championship and the second time was Saturday. Don’t worry, though, Avalon will bring the magic mustards to Oklahoma, but the Wildcats will only bust them out if they make it to the championship game.
“We only bring them out if we’re playing for a championship,” Avalon said. “So far over the past two years, we’ve brought them out twice and we got two championships from it.
“We’re going to pack them for Enid, and we’re going to plan on using them.”
After running through the gauntlet of Region XXIII, Pearl River earned the top overall seed at the World Series. It’ll play the winner of Pasco-Hernando State College (Florida) and Lackawanna (Pennsylvania) at 1 p.m. Sunday. The tournament is a double-elimination style tournament, and it’s made of teams from across the country.
The Wildcats aren’t very unfamiliar with most of the teams in the tournament, in fact.
“We have stayed within ourselves and done what we do,” Pearl River infielder Wiley Cleland, a Columbia Academy grad, said. “We’ve been able to do it pretty much all year. We don’t know a whole lot about (the other teams), but if we do what we do, we believe that we should be OK.
“I’ve heard of maybe one or two of (the teams), and that’s just because of the rankings earlier in the year.”
Cleland is one of 25 players on the roster who hail from Mississippi, with most coming from the south or central part of the state. Pearl River finished No. 6 nationally in the final Division II poll of the season and claimed the No. 1 overall seed after topping the first-, second- and fourth-ranked teams in the region tournament, and it’s all because of the top-tier talent Mississippi has to offer.
“It’s some of the best baseball, I guess, in the country,” Cleland said. “It kind of speaks for itself. We believe that we are, and now we really see that we really can be.”
In his third year, Avalon is proving to be reveling in the riches of the talented hotbed. A Mississippi junior college product himself, Avalon knows first hand that a Mississippi team can compete with anybody in the country.
Since Avalon took over the program, the Wildcats have improved their win total from 28 wins in 2017 to 38 last year and 40 this season with more games to go. Pearl River claimed the state championship a season ago, too, and one-upped it this season with the region title and World Series berth.
“Looking back three years ago when I was fortunate to be hired as the head coach here, one of the things that excited me the most was just how talented this area is,” Avalon said. “You look at high school baseball around this area and it’s just phenomenal. That’s a credit to the high school coaches, the families of this area and, obviously, of this area.”
Hattiesburg native Dexter Jordan has had a pretty good past 12 months. He won the 5A State Championship with the Hattiesburg Tigers and now he’s on his way to the junior college world series with Pearl River.
Jordan, who played outfield, third base and pitcher at Hattiesburg, faced a difficult decision last summer. He signed with Louisiana-Lafayette prior to his senior high school season, but he opted to stay local and play for Pearl River. He faced some criticism for his decision, but he doesn’t regret a thing.
“That was a tough decision,” Jordan said. “A lot of people disagreed and a lot of people agreed with me. It was a decision for me and my family and somewhere I could play close to home. Now it’s paid off.”
He admitted to having a “high school mentality” when he first arrived in Poplarville, but Avalon and the Pearl River coaches helped shake that mentally from Jordan’s game.
“You have to lock in more,” Jordan said. “You can’t take any innings off in college baseball, and that’s something I had to learn. As the season went on, I started to play every inning hard because it’s a nine-inning instead of a seven-inning game. It’s starting to pay off for me at the end of the season.”
As Avalon said when Jordan first signed with Pearl River, he believes second base is Jordan’s home at the next level. After 52 games, Jordan says he’s fallen in love with the position. He even wishes he could have played it in high school a little more, but his versatility was far too valuable for the Tigers.
Scouts have noticed, too. Avalon said he talked with a recruiter during the region tournament, and that recruiter was blown away with Jordan’s ability to grasp the position so quickly. Folks in Hattiesburg, however, aren’t so surprised.
“Defensively, he’s just made so many strides,” Avalon said. “He’s maturing there. He understands that it was something he had to work on. Without a doubt and a lot of credit to him, he’s put a lot of work in there and he’s been very good for us defensively.”