PERKINSTON — Mississippi Gulf Coast took a step toward its ultimate goal by qualifying for the state playoffs last year.
A 25-21 season ended in an exciting shootout of a first-round matchup, but the first trip to the postseason since 2013 wasn't considered good enough.
"As long as I'm here, our goal will never change, and that's to win a national championship," Bulldogs coach Rodney Batts said. "Our guys know that from the first meeting on. We're not satisfied with making the playoffs, or making a run at a state championship. We want to be the best in the state and the best in the country."
This year, the MACJC state championship will be determined in the regular season. The No. 1 team will earn that crown and advance to the six-team Region 23 Tournament.
LSU-Eunice will be one of the other teams, and the Nos. 2-9 teams will play best-of-3 series to determine the other four participants.
Mills-Derouen, a University of West Florida signee, went 5-3 last year with a 3.67 ERA, and he threw a no-hitter against East Central. The lefty was coming off Tommy John surgery, and he's got a swing-and-miss curve that baffles opponents.
"He got better down the stretch," Batts said. "His off-speed stuff got better as the year went on. He has the capability to be a dominant guy in our league. He's got the stuff to do it. He's got the mentality to do it."
Crosby was 3-4 last year, and the right-hander struck out 8.17 batters per nine innings.
"Chris is a tough, hard-nosed guy," Batts said. "He wants the ball and wants it in his hands in tough situations. He's a three-pitch, four-pitch guy some days. There were some games last year where he was really, really dominant."
Newcomers Ty Barnes (Fr., Petal/Petal) and Josh Lewis (Fr., Theodore/Theodore) figure to be the other two conference starters. The foursome has two righties and two lefties, giving Batts and pitching coach Eric Ebers flexibility.
In the bullpen, he has returners Mark Wood (R-So., Picayune/Picayune) and Mason Sullivan (So., Harrison Central/Saucier). Walk-on Grant Atwood (Fr., Vancleave/Vancleave), Hayden Harrell (Fr., Stone/Perkinston) and Oren Myrick (So., Pearl/Pearl) will also be called on in relief.
Atwood has surprised the coaching staff and has a lot of upside, while Harrell will be pitching for the first time. He's a strike-thrower who has developed an array of pitches that have been consistent.
The closer position is locked down with Brandon Kennedy (So., Choctaw Central/Philadelphia). He had seven saves and a 3.21 ERA.
"He was really good for us," Batts said. "That's a big role. If you don't have a good closer, so many times the game is won or lost in that last inning."
Harrell is one of four newcomers battling for playing time behind the plate. Beau Bratton (Fr., St. Patrick/Biloxi), Logan McGrew (Fr., Sumrall/Sumrall) and Colby Cagle (Fr., West Harrison/Lizana), Batts has two left-handed bats and two right-handers to pit against opposing pitchers.
Tyler Evans (So., D'Iberville/D'Iberville) returns, but will move across the diamond to first base. He hit .303 last year, and Sam Taylor (So., New Hope/Columbus) also returns to play short. Taylor batted .293 in 2016, and he will play at Northwestern State next season.
He'll be across from Champ Davison (So., Pascagoula/Pascagoula) at second base, with fellow first-year Bulldogs Dylan Menhennett (Fr., Biloxi/Biloxi) and Matt Muhleisen (Fr., Holy Cross/Harvey, La.) fighting it out at third.
"Pitchers want to know they can pitch to contact, get ground balls and get outs," Batts said. "It makes them a whole lot more confident knowing they've got that behind them."
There are six outfielders in the mix for playing time. Batts said they are all athletic and can track down fly balls.
In centerfield, Chase Rhodes (So., St. Stanislaus/Bay St. Louis) and Ian Goff (So., George County/George County) return. Goff batted .326 last year with a .467 on-base percentage. Rhodes stole six bases in seven attempts last year.
Donald Stokes (R-Fr., Ocean Springs/Pascagoula) and Jacob Bullock (Fr., West Jones/Soso) are in right field, with Chase Lott (Fr., Biloxi/Biloxi) and Aaron Nicholson (R-So., Vancleave/Vancleave) in left field.
"We did make a big stride last year making the playoffs," Batts said. "We've got some sophomore back who were on that team last year. The way that ended, our guys played really hard but we got eliminated. Hopefully that's motivation for them, to not let that happen again."
For more information on MGCCC's 10 intercollegiate athletic teams, follow @MGCCCAthletics on Twitter and BulldogLIVE on Facebook, and go to mgcccbulldogs.com.