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MGCCC Softball opens season Friday with big expectations

PERKINSTON — Mississippi Gulf Coast was undefeated 14 games into the season when everything shut down last year, and coach Eric Neel hasn’t changed what his 2021 softball Bulldogs are aiming for this time around.

“Our goals are just like they were last year. We want to be the best,” he said. “We feel like we had a great year last year, and we feel like our team is better than it was last year top to bottom. The kids have worked extremely hard. They’re competing hard, so few feel like we have a chance to be there at the end.”

The expectations aren’t just internal. Gulf Coast is ranked second in the NJCAA Division II preseason poll – just where they finished 2020.

The Bulldogs will start the season Friday with a trip to Louisiana to play four games over two days in the Youngsville Invitationals. They’ll open the Ross-Smith Field home slate Feb. 2 when Northwest Florida State visits Perk.

Home games will be streamed at https://mgcccbulldogs.com/stream.

“I’m super-excited about how good we’re gonna be on offense,” Neel said. “We feel like we’re a lot better offensively than last year. We feel really good about ourselves defensively, and we feel like our pitching unit is meshing together to complement each other.”

Rakeya Travis (So., Poplarville/Poplarville) is the biggest bat returning, and maybe not just on the Gulf Coast roster. When the season ended, she ranked first in the nation in slugging (1.382), first in on-base percentage (.711), second in batting (.618) and tied for third in HR (8) among those who had played 10 or more games. She handled all 29 chances at shortstop without an error.

“If she’s not the best player in the country,” Neel said, “she’s on the shortlist.”

Briana Shores (So., Richland/Richland) will be starting her third season at Gulf Coast, this time behind the plate. She batted a smooth .500 with 20 RBI last season.

Alexis Laughlin (So., Hurley/East Central) batted .435 and played errorless centerfield, and Andrea Morgan (So., Jackson/Jackson Prep) went 2-0 with a 3.44 ERA.

Neel said Morgan has the stuff to be the No. 1 starter, and A’Mya Stevens (So., Laurel/Northeast Jones) went 3-0 with a 2.52 ERA while batting .391.

“A’Mya Stevens has become really good in the circle,” Neel said. “The last couple of weeks for her have been fantastic.”

Abby Vance (Fr., Calhoun City/Calhoun City) practiced in the fall with a broken forearm, and she’s been released for full participation. She’ll join Katie Mitchell (So., McCool/Kosciusko), transfer Anna Avant (So., Water Valley/Water Valley) and Emaleigh Coates (Fr., Lucedale /George County) on the pitching staff.

Newcomers Kristian Jones (Fr., Southaven /DeSoto Central) and K.K. Agner (Fr., Horn Lake/Magnolia Heights) are expected to be instant contributors. Agner could start at third, and Jones will see action at second base and in the outfield.

There is a ton of depth on the roster, with Hannah Herrington (So., Enterprise/Enterprise) expected to see time at first base. Whitley Tanner (Fr., Hurley/East Central) and Avant will also play second base, and Mitchell will play at third.

Laughlin and Jones will have competition in the outfield with Sarah Brannan (So., Enterprise/Enterprise), Caroline Moore (So., Maryville Tenn/Maryville) and Grace Allgood (Fr., Hurley/East Central).

“Like I told the team a little while ago, we’re gonna have a lot of people sitting on the bench that could have justification to be playing,” Neel said. “It’s a matter of us figuring out the right combinations. We’re gonna have some people sitting on the bench who are good enough to play in this league.”

The preseason poll is proof of just how tough a road Gulf Coast will face just to get out of the region. Copiah-Lincoln is ranked third, Jones fourth, Itawamba 12th, East Central 15th and LSU Eunice 16th.

Those first four teams are mean one-third of the top-15 in the country play in the MACCC.

“I think it’s gonna be better and deeper than it was last year,” Neel said. “I think Itawamba will be their typical scrappy, well-coached team. I think Jones has tons of talent. I think Co-Lin will swing the bats with everybody, and Northwest will be good in the circle. It’s gonna be deeper than it ever has been, top to bottom.”

For more information on MGCCC’s 10 intercollegiate athletic teams, follow @MGCCCBulldogs on Twitter and MGCCCBulldogs on Facebook, and go to mgcccbulldogs.com.