CLEVELAND: No easy choice for this year’s Ferris Trophy

Published 12:00 pm Wednesday, May 11, 2016

By Rick Cleveland

In Mississippi, we celebrate our most special college athletes with end-of-the-season most outstanding player awards. Athletes at all four-year colleges and universities are eligible.

So, players at Millsaps, William Carey and Belhaven are candidates, just as players at Ole Miss and Mississippi State and Southern Miss.  The awards, sponsored by C Spire, are named for some of the greatest athletes in Mississippi history: Charlie Conerly, Boo Ferriss, Bailey Howell and Peggie Gillom.

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Yes, athletes at the NCAA Division I universities have dominated these awards over the years, but there have been exceptions. One example: Belhaven’s Craig Westcott, a pitching and hitting standout, won the 2009 C Spire Ferriss Trophy over future Major Leaguer Brian Dozier of USM and pitching whiz Scott Bittle of Ole Miss, who had won the award in 2008. Westcott pitched several years in professional baseball, excelling at the Class AA level before a back injury ended his career.

Perhaps the most difficult task for voters has been to weigh how well an athlete from, say, Delta State would do if he or she were playing in Division I.

In other words, how would Delta State slugger Will Robertson do if we were hitting against Mississippi State and Ole Miss Friday night starters Dakota Hudson and Brady Bramlett? (All three are prime candidates for this year’s C Spire Ferriss Trophy, which will be awarded May 23 in Cleveland.)

Robertson, a senior outfielder from Falkner, has hit just about everything served to him this season. As this is written, Robertson leads the Gulf South Conference in hitting with a .446 average, with 27 doubles and eight home runs. He has knocked home 69 runs and has a slugging percentage of a whopping .710. He has reached base exactly half the times he has gone to the plate.

Robertson’s story is fascinating. He led the Statesmen (and the league) in hitting two years ago and also pitched out of the bullpen. An elbow injury, which required Tommy John surgery, forced him to miss the entire 2015 season, but he has come back this season (as a hitter), even better than before.

“Obviously, Will goes down as one of the greatest hitters in Delta State history and we’ve had some great ones,” said Delta State coach Mike Kinnison, who could have included himself on that list.
Kinnison believes Robertson would hit at any level and he has support on that opinion.

“If you can hit, you can hit,” says Hill Denson, who won nearly 500 games as the baseball coach at Southern Miss and has won more than 500 at Belhaven. “Great hitters will adjust.”

This season, at the college level, we have proof of that. Meet Jake Sandlin, the center fielder and leading hitter on a nationally ranked Southern Miss team that is 34-14 overall and tied for Rice at the top of Conference USA with an 18-6 league record.

Jake Sandlin, from Evans, Ga., transferred to USM as a senior after starting three years at Division II Georgia College, where he was an All American as a junior. He transferred to USM to play with his kid brother, Nick Sandlin, a freshman who has become the Golden Eagles closer with nine saves and a 1.92 earned run average. The two brothers, nearly five years apart in age, had never played on the same team. USM coach Scott Berry is certainly glad they do now.

Just as Delta State’s Robertson, Jake Sandlin dominated Division II pitching in a really good Georgia College program. Last spring, he hit .380 with 55 RBIs and 61 runs scored. Still, even the experts had to wonder how Jake would adjust to faster fast balls and sharper breaking curves.

He has answered emphatically by leading USM with a .377 average with 12 doubles, three triples and four home runs. He has been at his best against the best. In the series with Rice, he was 6 for 11. Against Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State, he is a combined 7 for 16. There’s not a whole lot of difference between .380 and .377, which takes us back to Denson’s statement: “If you can hit, you can hit.”

In Mississippi, this season, we have plenty of players (at all levels) who can hit — and pitch. C Spire Ferriss Trophy voters face difficult choices.