June 6, 2014 10:44:55 AM
Matthew Stevens - firstname.lastname@example.org
STARKVILLE -- As Stacy Hester prepares to take another All-Star baseball team to Oklahoma for the Junior Sunbelt Classic, there's one goal in mind: Show the nation Mississippi has elite level baseball talent.
The former New Hope High School and current Brandon High baseball coach is taking 20 of the best rising juniors and seniors from the state of Mississippi to challenge teams from Colorado, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, Arizona, Missouri, and Canada.
The city of McAlester, Oklahoma, plays host to the Sunbelt Classic on the campus of Eastern Oklahoma State College. The event, which is in its 20th year, attracts coaches and scouts from across the country to see premier talent.
"One of my favorite things about this deal is seeing kids go away from home for a longer period of time than they've ever been and be put in a different baseball environment," Hester said. "They'll go stay with host families and figure out how to be on their own for some time before they hopefully go to college or the next level. All the while, we're trying to win a championship in this event for the state of Mississippi."
Even though Mississippi is one of the smallest states represented every year in Oklahoma, Team Mississippi has had success. Hester said he enjoys changing the perception people from outside the state may have about the quality of high school baseball in Mississippi.
knows the common reaction is simply by population numbers and perception Mississippi will be overlooked until they hit the field.
"I think people see Mississippi as the smallest state population wise in this tournament and have no expectations to see some high quality talent on our team," Hester said. "Then what happens is we go and play well to finish third, fourth or fifth in this deal and people are blown away."
Hester and a group of high school and college evaluators throughout the state helped determine the roster for Team Mississippi. The squad will play nine games in six days starting Friday. Hester hopes the 20 players will be able to take home a top-three finish against some of the nation's top prep talent.
"I enjoy doing this because you get to see some of the best high school baseball talent in the country and be part of the success of some of the kids in Mississippi," Hester said. "I've seen eventual first-round picks in the draft really play well in this tournament. I love it when kids play well and they're offered scholarships on the spot before they leave the complex that night."
Columbus High baseball coach Jeffrey Cook and Caledonia High baseball coach John Wilson will serve as assistant coaches.
Most of the players on the roster this season are from Desoto Central High and the Jackson area. Three players from Hester's Brandon High team are on Team Mississippi. Hester said having enough pitching is a primary concern at a high-quality event like this one.
"We always have a mixed bag of players when you take recommendations from the coaches at MSU, Ole Miss, Southern Mississippi, and the top junior colleges in the state," Hester said. "Most of these kids have already played travel ball and in prospect tournaments across the country. The country and the world is so much smaller nowadays, so it really doesn't faze these kids to play in this environment."
Mississippi State has six verbal commitments (Brant Blaylock, Austin Riley and Keegan James from DeSoto Central, Magnolia Heights' Dustin Skelton, Belmont's Luke Alexander, and Jackson Prep's Noah Hughes) on this team. MSU pitching coach Butch Thompson will go to Oklahoma to evaluate and scout talent for the Southeastern Conference program.
"What I love about watching the Mississippi kids in this event is when they see a breaking ball that's a little harder than they're normally used to seeing or they see a level of play that's a little higher, some of them will rise their game to a point they didn't reach during their high school season because they didn't have to," Thompson said. "That moment there is when you know a kid is more special than you thought."
Thompson said he prefers going to this event because it provides a better representation of a player's skill set than a traditional practice.
"Every kid should try to get on this team," Thompson said. "As a talent evaluator, I get to see the good, bad, and the ugly of kids in a team environment. I'm not watching a kid run a 40 time and then take maybe 10 swings and then do another drill like a robot. I get to see how he reacts in a game environment against similar competition. That's where you can trust what you're seeing with a kid's character and competitiveness."
Drake Nightengale, Drake Pace, Alex Knight (Sumrall), Acy Owen (Northwest Rankin), Ole Miss commit Carson Klepzig and his high school teammate Colin Coates (DeSoto Central), Will Craft (Hernando), Cartez Posey (Clinton), Ole Miss commit Greer Holston (St. Stanislaus), Davis Simmons (Jackson Academy), Ben Stiglets (Gulfport), Jackson Mitchell, Erick Hoard, and Hunter Wilson (Brandon) round out the roster.
Team Mississippi will begin the tournament at 2 p.m. Friday against a Colorado. It will play later that day against one of the two teams Oklahoma.
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.