TOP: Mississippi University for Women baseball coach Matt Wolfenbarger, left, watches as Bobby Neal tosses a baseball to Lukas Murphy during baseball practice inside The W’s Pohl Gymnasium on Tuesday afternoon. The W will open its first baseball season at 3 p.m. Friday when it plays the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas. Photo by: Adam Minichino/Dispatch Staff
February 8, 2018 10:09:19 AM
The butterflies are back.
For Matt Wolfenbarger, that means the start of another season.
This year, though, the anticipation of the start of a new campaign likely carries an added significance because Wolfenbarger and his students-athletes will make history when they kick off the Mississippi University for Women's baseball team's inaugural season.
The W will kick off its first intercollegiate baseball season at 3 p.m. Friday against the University of Dallas. The teams will play two seven-inning games at noon Saturday and a nine-inning game at 11 a.m. Sunday.
"Everything is progressing just like I hoped it would," Wolfenbarger said. "The pitchers are getting a good bit more in shape. Arms are getting in shape. Velocity is coming up. Hitting has improved a whole lot."
On Tuesday, The W players practiced inside at the school's Pohl Gymnasium due to the wet conditions outside. The hitters worked at hitting stations and inside a netted tunnel that was split in half with the help of protective nets. Wolfenbarger and graduate assistant coach Ben Russell pointed out things as each player hit off tees and took soft tosses to emphasize the team's approach at the plate that is based on going up the middle and going with the ball to right or left field.
Wolfenbarger said he wants every player in the lineup to bunt and to have quality at-bats to move runners so the Owls can produce runs. Since the fall season, he said he has seen big improvements.
"We had a lot of guys who were free swingers and who wanted to pull the ball and who had developed bad habits," Wolfenbarger said. "We have been able to go pretty much every day since the fall, and we have been able to see the benefits from that work. We also have been in the weight room."
Wolfenbarger was hired in December 2016 after working as pitching coach at Coahoma Community College, which is just north of Clarksdale. The Northport, Alabama, native also worked as head coach for three seasons at Delta Academy in Marks. He acknowledged there is a heightened sense of anticipation for him in that he has worked hard to try to find the right kind of players for the first team. Wolfenbarger said he has seen plenty of energy, good attitudes, and excitement in the last two weeks of practice. He hopes that carries over to Texas and that the Owls can improve every game on their first trip. If the team does that, Wolfenbarger is confident the results will come.
"I would lie if I said I wasn't a little nervous," Wolfenbarger said, "but I have seen how far we have come from the fall and how we played in the fall against Coahoma and then how we're playing now. Even though we're scrimmaging each other, these guys are pretty good. I am confident these guys should be pretty competitive."
The opportunity to hit the diamond comes as part of a return to athletics in 2017-18 for The W, a four-year co-educational public school in Columbus. In 2017, The W welcomed volleyball back to intercollegiate action and introduced women's cross country and men's soccer. At Noon Sunday, The W's softball team will return to the field when it plays Millsaps College in a doubleheader.
The W currently is on a path to gaining status as a NCAA Division III member.
Wolfenbarger said former Heritage Academy standout Brandon Jones will compete for an infield spot. He also said former Oak Hill Academy standout Heath Ford likely will see playing time at shortstop. Former Victory Christian Academy multi-sport standout Anthony Sharp has worked hard on his pitching and likely will see time on the mound, according to Wolfenbarger.
The first roster is made up mostly of players from the states of Mississippi and Alabama. There is one player from Illinois and another from Georgia.
Wolfenbarger said he expects it to take time to blend all of the personalities and skills. He said things have meshed nicely since the start of school in the fall. In fact, he said many of the players have shown a willingness to come in early and do extra work, and that mentality has become infectious with the other players.
Wolfenbarger said his goal is to get all of the Owls playing time in the opening weekend. He said all of the eligible players will make the bus trip to Irving, Texas and the University of Dallas, a private, independent Catholic school. He said the team will leave this afternoon.
"I am not putting pressure on them to think that this is the first game, the first program. Yeah, we need a win," Wolfenbarger said. "They're all thinking that, but I don't want that to be the forefront of what they're thinking. It is in their head that they want to win, but I want them to play good healthy baseball."
The W will open the home portion of its schedule at 3 p.m. Friday, Feb 16, with a doubleheader against Crowley's Ridge at Columbus High School. That series will wrap up with a game at noon on Saturday, Feb. 16.
The W will play all seven of its home dates at Columbus High.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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