BOONEVILLE • A worldwide pandemic may have halted their campaign, but nothing can take away from the history made by the Northeast Mississippi Community College baseball team in 2020.
The Tigers were off to their best start ever when the season was cancelled by the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) in mid-March due to the outbreak of the coronavirus.
Northeast completed the non-conference portion of its schedule with a 16-2 mark after sweeping a four-game series from Marshalltown (Iowa) Community College on what turned out to be the final weekend of the abbreviated year.
The Tigers rose to No. 9 in the NJCAA Division II poll ahead of what would have been a top 10 showdown against Pearl River Community College in their Mississippi Association of Community and Junior Colleges (MACJC) opener. It was the highest ranking in program history.
The brand-new “Field of Dreams” complex turned out to be a true home field advantage for Northeast. The Tigers went 13-1 inside their state-of-the-art, multi-million dollar on-campus stadium, which included a thrilling 11-inning triumph over Kaskaskia (Ill.) College.
Richy Harrelson won his 100th game as Northeast’s head coach during a doubleheader sweep at Jackson State (Tenn.) Community College. He witnessed first-hand several special performances by his Tigers.
SID: Your team was red hot when the season paused. Give me your thoughts on where your team was at that time.
Harrelson: Mainly they were just playing with a lot of confidence. They really enjoyed being around each other. They loved to compete.
SID: The first word we got was the conference was going to postpone play for two weeks, but eventually the NJCAA cancelled the whole season. What were your emotions after learning all this information?
Harrelson: Following what the bigger schools had done and what some of the professional teams had done I guess you could kinda see it coming. When it first happened we were just kinda numb. We just thought we were going to be out for two weeks and keep working. Then all of a sudden we learned through a tweet and an email (from the NJCAA) that it was over.
SID: What did you tell your players when you got to talk to them and what was their reaction to the news?
Harrelson: I was actually with coach (Jody) Long when we got the email and the tweet. They sent us that email about 1 p.m. on a Friday afternoon and then they tweeted it out like five minutes later. So I immediately got on the phone and started texting them because I didn’t really want them to find out any other way, but at the same time there was no way to tell them all at once before they could find out. We have a group text and we sent out, “When we have more information we’ll let you know.”
SID: The NJCAA has said that every player at our level is going to get their year back. What are your thoughts on this ruling?
Harrelson: There are going to be guys that are gonna move on just due to academics and there are going to be guys that are going to want to come back because they want to play somewhere at a higher level. We have a pretty good idea of who is going to do that and who’s not. But it’s just something that we’ve never dealt with. We want to try to do what’s right. We want to try to help all the guys that are coming in and help all the guys that are staying and help all the guys that are leaving.
SID: What a year it was getting to play in that beautiful new facility for the first time. Talk about that and although we didn’t get to play our full season on it, the atmosphere was electric every time we went out on the field to play.
Harrelson: It was a lot of fun and it’s going to get better. The fans are great here. Everybody is so enthusiastic about the new facility. All the players that have come back and seen the locker room and the new indoor facility have been like, “Oh coach, this is unbelievable.” They all wish they had one more year to come back and be a part of this. It’s going to help our town. It’s going to help bring in a lot of people. Jody and I were talking one day and I think we had figured up that between all the high school teams and college teams we had over 75 games that were played on campus that did not have a Northeast team playing. There were a bunch of people that came to Booneville that normally wouldn’t have been here.
SID: Who were some of the standout individuals from our season that you’ll always remember?
Harrelson: I can’t say enough about our pitching. Our pitchers did a really good job throughout the course of the year, especially J.T. Durham and Cole Phillips and Peyton Harris. It’s hard for freshmen to come in and have as much impact on the mound as they did. I was really proud of those guys and I’m proud of all of our guys. Jacob Compton was a big impact coming in. Conner Davis was playing really well. All the guys that returned…Bryce Stanton, Hayes Hansford, Chad Stephens, Ramsey Ivy, Hayden Scarbrough, Landon Wilkerson…they did such a good job making all the younger guys feel welcome. I can’t tell you how many times I heard them discuss how well they got along together in the dorm. That’s a special thing.
SID: Let’s look forward a little bit and talk about 2021. Give a little insight looking forward to next spring about what you’re thinking about your guys, especially the recruits coming in.
Harrelson: We’ve got eight guys coming in as of right now. It wasn’t a big class that we had to sign, but we’re pretty excited about the guys that we have coming in. We did a lot of background check on them and not only are they good players, but they’re really, really good kids. So it’s just going to help our team get better. I don’t know that we’re through recruiting. There’s still a couple of guys that we are actively pursuing. We’re staying in contact with these guys and coach (Will) Brand has been doing a really good job with that.
SID: How has the fan support been both during this first season at the new complex and since the pandemic began?
Harrelson: Our fans have been nothing but supportive. They have done nothing but help. It’s been unreal how many people that we’ve had reach out to us to tell us they were thinking about us. There is so much excitement in the air about our baseball and softball programs because of the new facility and the dynamic of the whole thing. It’s really neat to see the fans be so excited about it.
SID: When things begin returning to normal and baseball eventually returns, how emotional and amazing is that going to be?
Harrelson: I think it’s going to be a neat thing when we all return. I think there’s going to be a different attitude not only here, but all across the country and world because everything’s been put on hold. How many times in life do you get to experience something where you’re told it’s over and then you get a second chance to do it again knowing what it could be like if you never got to do that again? For instance, some of our sophomores thought (their career) could be over. They could never (play baseball) again. I think there’s going to be a lot of excitement when any sport returns just because people miss relationships and you think about how many relationships you develop on a team. That’s the one thing that everybody always misses when they get through playing is they miss each other. They miss the locker room and the bus rides and the dorm and being around each other.
I don’t want to say it’s going to be a healing, but there’s definitely going to be a different perception among people all across the United States. I just think there’s going to be a lot more good attitudes. You’ve got to admit we take a lot of things for granted. Even something as simple as not being able to go to McDonald’s or Wendy’s or your favorite restaurant to sit down and eat. Everything has a learning curve. Everything has a learning process.