July 15, 2017 10:30:39 PM
The road to the Mississippi University of Women has had plenty of twists and turns for Anthony Sharp and Heath Ford.
While Sharp and Ford have gone to places like Blue Mountain and Clarksdale and Mayhew before deciding to call Columbus their new collegiate homes, Brandon Jones only had to make a 10-minute drive to find the school for him.
The shared journeys of Sharp, Ford, and Jones will be three of the pieces of a 35-player puzzle Matt Wolfenbarger will assemble to make the Mississippi University for Women's inaugural baseball program.
With the start of the 2017-18 school year a little more than a month away, the anticipation is building for a chance to make history. For former local standouts like Sharp (Victory Christian Academy in Columbus), Ford (Oak Hill Academy in West Point), and Jones (Heritage Academy in Columbus), the countdown is a little more special because they are part of a local group of players that understands the significance of the return of intercollegiate sports to the Columbus campus.
"It is really exciting," said Sharp, who started his college career playing basketball at Blue Mountain College, a NAIA Division I school in Blue Mountain, less than 20 miles north of New Albany. "I was ecstatic about the combination of being around my hometown, being able to play, and being able to get my degree. I couldn't pass it up."
The W's baseball team will open its inaugural season Feb. 9-12 at a tournament in Cary, North Carolina. It will play host to Crowley's Ridge College, a private, four-year Christian school in Paragould, Arkansas, on Feb. 16-17, 2018, in its home opener. The games will be part of a 34-game schedule that will include trips to schools in Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. The W also will play state schools Tougaloo College, Rust College, Belhaven University, and Blue Mountain College. It hasn't released where it will play its home baseball games.
Wolfenbarger, a former pitching coach at Coahoma Community College in Clarksdale and a head coach at Delta Academy in Marks, has a roster that includes 17 players from Alabama and 14 from Mississippi. Other players are from Georgia, Illinois, and Tennessee. There are nine transfers on the roster, including five who have previous college baseball experience.
The group will make history as one of two men's sports that will debut on campus. In addition to volleyball, softball, and women's cross country, men's soccer will play its inaugural season. Then-MUW President Claudia Limbert moved to discontinue the school's athletic department in 2002 after a November tornado in that year destroyed the school's gymnasium. The Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL) Board of Trustees approved the move in 2003.
Sharp never imagined he would end up at The W. In fact, he spent much of his senior year at Victory Christian training with former VCA standout Landon Ellis to earn a chance to play college football. When an opportunity to play at Faulkner University in Montgomery, Alabama, didn't materialize, Sharp shifted gears and accepted an offer to play basketball.
It wasn't surprising Sharp was able to transition to another sport so quickly. A 6-foot guard, Sharp averaged more than 21 points per game as a senior for the Eagles. He also led the team in scoring as a junior (20.9) and as a sophomore (19.8). Sharp hit .500 and was a standout pitcher on the school's baseball team. He also scored all six of his team's touchdowns in a 44-8 win against Tuscaloosa Christian in the Christian Football Association championship in the fall. The effort helped him earn CFA Offensive Player of the Year honors. He later shared The Dispatch's Small Schools Football Player of the Year.
But Sharp, who is pursuing a degree in nursing, didn't like being as far away from home as he was at Blue Mountain College. He also wanted to be at a school that had a nursing program, so he returned home over Christmas and was in the process of figuring out his next step. With a couple of offers to try out in hand, Sharp also considered giving up sports to concentrate on his studies.
That's when he received a call from Heath Beard, who works at The W.
"Are you interested in playing baseball?" Beard asked Sharp.
Sharp said he told Beard, whose daughter attends Victory Christian, he was interested and Beard handed the phone to Wolfenbarger. Sharp wasn't sure how Wolfenbarger, who is from Northport, Alabama, heard about his baseball skills, but the talk in April eventually led him to finding a perfect fit of academics and athletics.
"I wanted to do nursing, but I didn't know if I could play sports or if I would have to change my degree and go somewhere else," Sharp said. "I had a couple of opportunities lined up to play, but I wasn't sure they were a fit with my current major, which is why I jumped on the chance to get the degree I wanted and to play."
Since talking with Wolfenbarger, Sharp said he bought a new bat and has been working with Lance Dawkins at Next Level Baseball, an indoor facility in Caledonia, to polish his skills. He said it didn't take him too long to get his fundamentals down and that he is working on more advanced skills so he is ready to go next month.
Ford also wanted to be closer to home after playing baseball at Coahoma C.C. in the fall semester. Little did Ford know he would meet his future coach -- Wolfenbarger -- at Coahoma C.C. After transferring to East Mississippi C.C.'s Mayhew branch, Ford worked as a volunteer assistant coach for Mitch Bohon and the Oak Hill Academy baseball team.
A visit to The W convinced Ford that Columbus was the place for him, even though he had an offer from William Carey and he received a call from Blue Mountain College.
"I decided it was best to stick around and stay close to home and be a part of the first team," Ford said. "My mom (Mary Clair) graduated from there, so that is another thing for it. I think it will be a special thing. I think we can really do something there in the first year."
Jones shares that enthusiasm. As one of the first baseball players to commit to the school, Jones said in February playing for the school in his hometown was a primary reason he selected The W.
"This is really the college for Columbus, and I want to put The W on the map and win games," Jones said. "Hopefully I can help lead us to some type of trophy."
Jones won't be the only player with ties to Heritage Academy on The W's first baseball team. Former Patriot James Clark also is on the initial roster. Clark graduated from Heritage Academy in 2013. He hit .232 with one home run and 10 RBIs in 25 games (18 starts) for Northwest Mississippi C.C. in Senatobia in 2014. He hit .288 with four home runs and 29 RBIs in 50 games (50 starts) in 2015 at Northwest Mississippi C.C.
Jones, who was in eighth grade when Clark graduated, believes Wolfenbarger has assembled an array of talented players. He said all of the players got along in June when they came together for orientation at The W. Next month, the 35 Owls will help lay the foundation so they can realize Jones' goal of winning some kind of trophy.
"It is a big deal for me because I want to put on for my hometown and I don't want to let my hometown down," Jones said. "I am going to do what I need to do for my team and to get a win for The W."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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