POPLARVILLE — The scene within Pearl River baseball’s facility didn’t deviate much from what you might expect to see on a July afternoon at a junior college program.
Head coach Michael Avalon took a call to discuss some gear for next season. Pitching coach Brandon Pennington was due to be married in two days, but he was on hand anyway alongside fellow assistant coach Slater Lott after a recruiting visit that morning.
There wasn’t any immediate evidence that this coaching trio had led the Wildcats to their first NJCAA DII National Championship just over a month ago – until Avalon plucked a ring measurement tool off his desk and tossed it to a visiting staffer.
Within Avalon’s program, it makes perfect sense for a championship ring fitting to casually coincide with the day-to-day grind.
“When you talk about success, I think it makes you one of two things,” Avalon said. “I think it makes you complacent, or I think it makes you hungry for more. I’m one of those guys – I like to eat.”
Now six seasons into Avalon’s tenure as head coach, Pearl River is a conveyor belt for Division I talent.
The Wildcats will send 13 players to four-year colleges next season, and 12 to the Division I level. Three of those commits will attend programs that reached the NCAA Tournament super regionals in 2022.
“Nobody else is doing that,” said pitcher Cole Tolbert, who enrolled at Ole Miss after the season. “Obviously there’s something different going on down there. Coach Avalon is doing something right.”
Don’t mistake that level of talent production for an outstanding, one-off year. Pearl River sent another 10 players to the Division I ranks in the previous cycle.
For the Pearl River staff, the secret is that there is no secret.
The Wildcats look for the same attributes in prospects that are prioritized by many coaches at top collegiate programs around the country. The Pearl River staff values character, size and athleticism.
“Everybody says every year that when we walk out on the field, we look different,” Pennington said. “That’s kind of how we recruit. We want to recruit guys that don’t look the same.”
Tolbert, who hurled seven innings of two-run ball and struck out 11 in the national championship clincher, is 6-foot-4. Twelve of the other pitchers on the Widlcats’ championship roster measure at least 6-foot-2, including Oak Grove alumnus Turner Swistak, who has signed to play for Tennessee.
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Pennington is aware that the characteristics sought out by Pearl River’s staff force them to fish for talent in the same pond as elite Division I schools, but the Wildcats do so unapologetically. With excellent facilities and a winning tradition, they can compete.
They know the risks, too. In the recruiting class set to arrive this fall, Pennington said Pearl River lost five verbal commitments to SEC programs. In the previous cycle, Alabama, Mississippi State and Southern Miss flipped Pearl River verbals.
“It happens, it’s just part of it,” Pennington said. “But we know that going in.”
It’s an approach that makes plenty of sense to Southern Miss coach Scott Berry, who spent 1997-2000 in the junior college ranks as the head coach at Meridian. The Golden Eagles recruit Mississippi’s junior colleges heavily, and rostered two former Pearl River standouts last season. Another is on the way, in the form of NJCAA DII Player of the Year Tate Parker.
“When you’re in that position, you’re tabbing to go after the best,” Berry said. “It might be the same people that the four-year schools are going after, but I think if you build a reputation of being able to put out talent that moves to big programs, certainly that sells yourself at the junior college level.”
Talent acquisition is only the first step. Talent development is just as integral to Pearl River’s success, Avalon explained.
Tolbert said the staff took an individualized approach with him, accentuating his strengths rather than trying to fit him into a mold. And the workout programs? Well, what he’s experiencing at Ole Miss is light work compared to his first fall in Poplarville.
“They’re getting after it as soon as they get here,” Lott, who handles Pearl River’s strength training, said.
Even with Pearl River’s collection of elite talent, winning requires a proper platform. Culture building can be difficult at the junior college level, with players always looking to move on and further their own careers.
There was no evidence of selfishness among the Wildcats this season, according to Tolbert. He attributed that to Avalon’s efforts.
“You can call every kid on the team, and every one would say he’d run through a brick wall for Coach Avalon if he told them to right now,” Tolbert said
Reach Southern Miss writer David Eckert at email@example.com or on Twitter @davideckert98.