Trey Petite of MUW celebrates after hitting a triple. Photo by: Chris McDill/Special to the Dispatch
April 25, 2019 3:22:08 AM
Mississippi University for Women baseball coach Matt Wolfenbarger momentarily reflected.
He thought back to his team's first practice in September 2017.
A ragtag bunch of 35 players had come together for MUW's first baseball team. Beyond the reps, Wolfenbarger tried to see what he was working with.
Junior college coaches across the south had pitched players to him. Some of those now playing at MUW, he had only seen a little video on.
No matter. This was the team bestowed upon him.
"I didn't have too high of expectations," Wolfenbarger said. "Because a lot of the kids I saw and I went and watched, but I was wondering how they'd adapt to the college game and being around other players that are just as good as them."
Wolfenbarger said he recruited players with grit and determination, players who just wanted to play baseball.
The drills that fall day reflected as much.
"The guys didn't let that deter them in any way," Wolfenbarger said. "They kind of embraced it and pushed each other."
One year doesn't cure all ills. MUW still boasts a roster overwhelmingly comprised of freshmen and sophomores. Two seniors are listed -- Prince Tolbert and Jackson Norris-Jones -- both of whom have eligibility remaining.
Yet it's that youthful exuberance, comprised with knowledgeable upperclassmen that has the Owls prepared for another run at the Small College World Series after finishing fifth last season.
"For us to finish as well as we did up there, it kind of gave our guys a whole new sense of confidence that, 'Hey, we can go up there and compete,'" Wolfenbarger said.
Sophomores Leon "Trey" Petite, Damon Benefield and Heritage Academy alum Brandon Jones have led the offensive charge.
The trio has combined for 88 hits and 62 RBIs. Of the three, Petite has the lowest batting average at .346, while Benefield and Jones are hitting .397 and .403, respectively.
Wolfenbarger specifically sang Benefield's praises.
"He's an RBI machine," he said. "The guy hits the ball hard and I like to say even when he mishits balls he still hits them hard."
On the mound, junior RJ Dell has been a workhorse. He holds a 3.91 ERA in 46 innings pitched -- twice as many as any other player. He also leads the team with 31 strikeouts.
"He kept us in a lot of games and is really carrying our pitching staff," Wolfenbarger said.
With bated breath, the Owls will now wait for a postseason invitation.
MUW concluded its regular season after being swept by Stillman College Tuesday.
The losses were a marginal damper, but at 16-11 the Owls sit at No. 5 in the latest U.S. Collegiate Athletic Association Coaches poll.
The USCAAC will announce the 10 teams heading to DuBois, Pennsylvania, for the 2019 Small College World Series on May 6. Competition begins May 13.
For a program that is not quite two years old, the early success is nothing to scoff at. But Wolfenbarger has this year's team dreaming bigger after last year's postseason appearance.
"Last year was kind of a fun trip, got out feet wet, let's participate, let's see what it's about," he said. "This year it's kind of a business trip. Just go up there and take care of business and do good at the World Series."
Ben Portnoy reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch.
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