May 5, 2011 8:52:00 AM
Chris Rose knew he was in for a challenge when he became baseball coach at East Mississippi Community College.
After winning two MACJC state championships and a NJCAA Region 23 championship in his five seasons at Meridian C.C., Rose realized the Lions, who went 23-25 in 2010 and were in the midst of a lengthy postseason drought, needed a positive approach to put things back on the right track.
But Rose never could have imagined the new mind-set he wanted his players to adopt would face as trying an ordeal as it did to start the 2011 season.
Loss after loss after loss turned into a 1-18 start that had Rose, who won 186 games at MCC, wondering if the Lions would have an entire campaign of missed opportunities.
"I think it helped that none of our goals were predicated on winning and losing ballgames," Rose said. "We were just about getting better every day and winning every pitch. It is not anything we addressed when the record was whatever it was -- one and a million -- at that point in time.
"Yes, (it felt bad), and I am sure it felt pretty bad to them, too. Twenty games into the season it felt like we had played 60."
Futility eventually turned into accomplishment, as EMCC "bought into" Rose''s attitude and became a family. The result was a history-making turnaround that has EMCC (16-27, 14-10 MACJC North Division) back in the postseason for the first time since 2004.
EMCC will begin that journey at 6 p.m. Friday when it takes on Jones County Junior College in Ellisville in a best-of-three series. The winner will advance to the MACJC State tournament on May 12-14.
The transformation is sweet for Rose, who guided MCC to MACJC state championships in 2006 and ''08 and to the NJCAA Region 23 championship in ''09.
"We just kept stressing for us to get better and to worry about the things we could control," Rose said. "My assistant coaches and the players get all of the credit. A lot of teams would have folded up the tent (when the record was 1-18), but they didn''t. They kept going strong. I can''t say enough about the attitude. They had every opportunity and excuse to give up."
Despite the slow start, Rose thought the Lions were improving every day. He sensed the players wanted to be part of the transformation that turned EMCC baseball into a contender, and he credited sophomore leaders like former Caledonia High standout Tyler Aldridge, former Oak Hill Academy standout Mitch Bohon, and former Heritage Academy standout Cole Vaughan for playing keep leadership roles.
Bohun and Vaughan played similar roles in that each player emerged after a teammate was injured. Bohon had been playing designated hitter until former New Hope High School standout Hilton Gibson went down with an injury after playing 18 games. Bohon moved to first base and didn''t miss a beat. He leads the team in home runs (six) and is tied for the team lead with 20 RBIs. He is hitting .286 and leads the team with a .419 on-base percentage.
"I think I went from trying to help to being a leader," Bohon said. "I don''t take practice for granted anymore. I use it as a tool to get better."
Bohon said he used to approach practice as something he used to get away from school or something to kill time. But he realized he might never again get an opportunity to step on a baseball field every day, so he used the team''s slow start as motivation and re-focused his efforts.
Soon, the EMCC baseball team of the first 20 game vanished and a more positive one emerged in its place.
"We always had one mess-up in the game that ended up costing us (early in the season)," Bohon said. "One day we realized if we cut out that mess we''re going to be a good team. Since then, we have had one of best records in the second half and we''re playing good baseball."
Vaughan, a left-hander, took on a bigger role after starting pitcher Kameron Heiser went out with appendicitis. The Columbus native is 0-3 with a 2.95 ERA and two saves. He has 26 strikeouts and three walks in 24 1/3 innings.
"He has been phenomenal," Rose said. " He stepped up when he had to and ran with the opportunity when he got it."
Vaughan said he didn''t change anything about his approach after Heiser went down. He said the chance to make a few big starts gave him confidence to know he could play a key role in the team''s drive to the playoffs.
"We came together a lot more once we started getting down and became more of a family in the second half of the season," Vaughan said. "I think we all realized what each one of our roles are and we know what to expect from everyone down the line."
n EMCC softball players honored: At Scooba, Sophomore shortstop Mallory Pace and freshman teammate Lainie Simcox were selected to the NJCAA All-Region 23 team.
Coach Kate Neely also was named MACJC North Division Coach of the Year, and freshman catcher Jessie Clark earned Best Defensive Player honors for the division, and sophomore center fielder DeShuni Sanders, of New Hope High, was named to the MACJC North Division First Team.
Sanders has a .343 batting average this season and ranks third on the team with 34 runs scored. She also leads EMCC in stolen bases for the second year in a row with 18 steals in 21 attempts.
Sophomore second baseman Cayla Coleman was a second-team All-Division pick, and sophomores Nashedra Barry, of Columbus High, Leigh Ellen Barefield, and Amy Johnson received honorable mention status.
EMCC (23-21) will play No. 1-ranked LSU-Eunice at 4 p.m. today at 4 p.m. in opening-day action of the six-team, double-elimination NJCAA Region 23 tournament at Traceway Park in Clinton
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.