In the tiny town of Vossburg, Miss., baseball often is a hot topic. It’s where Tougaloo senior infielder Deshawn Pittman grew up and had his own dreams of diamond glory.
Tougaloo baseball, not unlike Vossburg, has been but a tiny blip on the map. The program’s history of struggling to win games has caused others to overlook it as travelers might overlook a one-stop-light town.
But the Bulldogs finally are making people take notice. With its two-game sweep of Selma over the weekend, Tougaloo finished the season with 19 wins, most in program history since the team was resurrected after the turn of the millennium.
Now Pittman has given the folks back home fodder for conversation.
“Where I’m from, we all love baseball,” he said. “For me to be a part of us making history, it’s something to be proud of.
“I was looking at records and stats (from previous years), and we weren’t a very competitive team. From then to now, it’s taken a pretty big turn.”
Tougaloo’s turnaround began with the re-hiring of coach Earl Sanders, who helped to re-start the program in 2002, in 2015. After Sanders’ first three seasons in which the Bulldogs combined for 26 wins, the team had a breakthrough this spring.
After starting 1-6, the Bulldogs went 18-17 the rest of the way.
Sanders, a first-round draft pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1986, said a lot changed from his first stint with the program. The sport now is taken more seriously, and Sanders is more selective about the athletes he recruits.
“We looked for character guys, guys who wanted to play ball and guys who wanted to get a degree,” he said.
He started scheduling differently, filling the slate with more teams comparable to his own rather than a steady diet of larger programs – though in-state Division I opponents Alcorn State and Jackson State remain fixtures.
Sanders also gave a lot of credit to his assistant coaches, Gary Anderson and Dante Benford, for developing the players. Anderson played baseball at Jackson State, Sanders’ alma mater, and Benford played for Tougaloo during Sanders’ first stint.
Learning more nuances of the game, said senior Lige Mims Jr., helped the team improve.
“At the college level, the small things will turn us from an average player to an elite player,” he said.
None of the coaches is full-time, but Sanders said the senior players have made key contributions to keeping the program going in the right direction, acting as de facto coaches. He said the four seniors often got practices going while waiting for the coaches to arrive.
“Those guys know the routine,” Sanders said. “It makes it a lot easier for us. That’s going to be very hard to replace. Coaches get a lot of credit, but your (player) leadership takes you to the next level.”
To that end, the Bulldogs are searching for the next group of leaders to step up. Mims said he sees potential in some of the younger players, but it’s a matter of someone stepping forward and the other team members being willing to accept them as leaders.
Someone also will have to replace the seniors’ production.
Mims led the team with a .398 batting average and 34 RBIs. He also was the Bulldogs’ best pitcher, with a 6-2 record and a 3.06 ERA. Pittman hit .336 with 25 RBIs.
Welton Hudson Jr. hit .281 with 18 RBIs, and Ronald Russell Jr. was the pitching workhorse, logging team highs of 12 starts, 76 innings pitched and seven complete games.
The quartet formed the foundation for the Bulldogs’ success. Pittman said he could tell immediately that this season could turn into something special.
The Bulldogs opened with a three-game series against perennial power Talladega, ranked No. 5 in the Black College Nines small-school poll. Though Talladega swept the series, all three games were competitive – Tougaloo dropped two of the games by one run — and low-scoring.
“To go to their place and play them the way we did was great,” Pittman said. “We were just missing the offense.
“The way we lost to them, we looked at it as a loss, but we took what we did good from every game and applied it to the next one.”
The highlight was a midseason six-game winning streak that concluded with a 9-1 win over Alcorn State. Mims went the distance on the mound, scattering four hits and giving up one earned run over nine innings, and drove in two runs.
The win also put the Bulldogs in uncharted territory: over .500, as they were 12-11 after beating Alcorn. They weren’t able to finish with a winning record, but the 19 wins represented a huge step in the right direction. The key now will be building on this season’s achievements in order to keep the program trending upward.
But the word is out about Tougaloo baseball. Vossburg, Miss., will have plenty to talk about, as will lots of other towns who sent players to Tougaloo.
“This whole season has been epic,” Mims said. “I get phone calls day-in and day-out from my hometown (of Moss Point, Miss.) telling me how proud they are of me.
“They always ask me, ‘Are you going to play at the next level?’ This is more of an education experience than playing baseball … but you never know who’s watching.”
Chuck Curti is a sports writer and copy editor for the Tribune-Review in Greensburg, Pa. He is a contributing writer for Black College Nines.