A year ago, baseball in Marion County was prematurely cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic, but the county’s four teams came back with a vengeance in 2021. Established stars continued to dominate, average underclassmen developed into elite players and first-time starters stole headlines and made their presence felt. And now it’s time to recognize the best the county has to offer with The Columbian-Progress’ annual awards.
There are five awards up for grabs this year: Most Valuable Player, Offensive Player of the Year, Pitcher of the Year, Most Improved Player and Breakout Star of the Year. While the first four aforementioned awards are established and self-explanatory, the Breakout Star of the Year honor is a new award and goes to the best first-year starter, regardless of grade. A player can only win one of the honors.
There are three players being considered for MVP this year, with West Marion’s Jayden Duncan, Columbia Academy’s Hays Carley and East Marion’s Ja’Quarious Jones earning the nominations.
Duncan, who has starred for the Trojans since the eighth grade and is also nominated for Pitcher of the Year, was a two-way star for West Marion. At the dish he gave the Trojans excellent middle-of-the-order production, batting .395 with four home runs, nine doubles, 45 RBI (county best) and a 1.209 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS), which is a solid, all-encompassing stat that takes into consideration the ability to make solid contact, drive the ball for extra-base hits and to draw walks. The Southwest Mississippi Community College signee was even better on the mound, leading the county in ERA (0.45), strikeouts (100) and innings pitched (62 1/3) while posting a 5-3 record.
Carley, who was a first-time starter and is a nominee for Offensive Player of the Year and Breakout Star, was the perfect leadoff man to set the table for the Cougars. The middle infielder hit .448 with two home runs, seven doubles and triples, 13 RBI, 16 stolen bases, 29 runs scored and a 1.187 OPS. The junior’s offensive prowess was on full display April 5 against Amite School Center when he hit for the cycle in a 5-for-5 performance that included him driving in five runs, scoring five runs and stealing two bases.
A middle-of-the-order fixture for the Eagles since he was in the seventh grade who is also nominated for Offensive Player of the Year, Jones had a monster junior season and led Marion County in both batting average (.533) and OPS (1.483). The third baseman and pitcher hit three long balls and four doubles and had 22 RBI, 17 runs scored and four stolen bases. While his full pitching stats were unavailable, he was also East Marion’s most dominating arm on the mound and was the winning pitcher in the school’s upset of West Marion to close the regular season.
Joining Jones and Carley in the Offensive Player of the Year race are a pair of West Marion stars, who utilized their power and speed to have big senior years. Catcher Mason Parrett, who recently signed with Hinds Community College, was a big part of the Trojans lineup as their cleanup hitter. He hit .408 with five homers, six doubles and triples, 33 RBI, 31 runs, 32 stolen bases (county best) and a 1.163 OPS.
Meanwhile, West Marion’s leadoff man, Josh Boone, a Copiah-Lincoln Community College signee, developed into a modern top-of-the-order bat, providing power, speed and on-base skills. He batted .398 with three homers, eight doubles and triples, 27 RBI, 48 runs (county best), 18 stolen bases and a 1.132 OPS.
Nominated alongside Duncan for Pitcher of Year are West Marion’s Miles Maliden and Columbia Academy’s Logan Buckley and Trevor Courtney. Maliden, who is also tabbed as a Most Improved Player candidate, had only thrown three varsity innings prior to this season but proved to have legitimate swing-and-miss stuff and manipulated his arm slot to keep batters off balance. He went 9-1 (four wins more than any other pitcher in the county) with a 1.87 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 48 2/3 innings.
Buckley, who is also a candidate for Breakout Star, took the MAIS by storm as a seventh grader and by year’s end was the Cougars most dominant arm. The southpaw, who mixes a quality fastball with a knee-buckling breaking ball, went 3-4 with a 2.79 ERA and 54 strikeouts in 32 2/3 innings. Courtney also proved to be a valuable and versatile arm for the Cougars and went 1-1 with a 2.80 ERA and 30 strikeouts in 30 innings pitched. The senior had a little deception to his delivery with a lower arm slot and a release point that started behind right-handed batters.
Joining Maliden in the Most Improved Player race are fellow Trojans teammate Tre Broom, Columbia’s Dylan Wallace and CA’s Holdyn Sandifer. Broom’s junior season blew away his previous seasons, both in the field and at the plate. While he was a reliable second baseman in previous seasons, he became an elite defensive shortstop in 2021 and allowed head coach Derrick Jerkins to be creative with his lineups to preserve Duncan and Boone. Offensively, the left-handed hitter cut down on his strikeouts considerably and began to deliver on his plus potential. After hitting just .069 in a pandemic-shortened 2020 and .106 as a freshman, Broom delivered as a junior with a .361 average, five doubles, 15 RBI, 33 runs, 21 stolen bases and a .936 OPS.
Wallace experienced a considerable jump in production as well. After sporting a 7.50 ERA in 14 innings last season, the sophomore became the Wildcats’ most reliable starter on the bump in 2021. Mixing a fastball with late running action and a quality off-speed offering, Wallace went 2-2 with a 3.57 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 31 1/3 innings.
Although Sandifer’s sample size was small in 2020, the catcher couldn’t buy any luck at the plate, going hitless in 24 plate appearances. That changed big time this year as he became a legitimate bat in CA’s lineup, hitting .311 with four doubles and 13 RBI. Behind the plate, the sophomore went from committing seven errors in just 10 games last year to just one in 22 games this season.
For Breakout Star of the Year, Carley and Buckley are accompanied by East Marion’s Ka’Ron Weary and Columbia’s Nik Carney. While Buckley’s pitching prowess has already been mentioned, he also proved to be a valuable hitter for the Cougars, batting .260 with two homers, five doubles, 11 RBI and 10 runs.
Weary, a sophomore, arrived with bad intentions as a sophomore as one of the county’s best hitters. He hit .414 with seven doubles, two triples, 18 RBI, 23 runs, nine stolen bases and a 1.117 OPS. While he struggled early in the year with his command on the mound, the righty developed into a quality swingman for the Eagles and could become East Marion’s ace by his senior year.
Carney, meanwhile, may have the best potential of any young pitcher in the county and proved to have plus stuff with 42 strikeouts in 28 innings as a freshman. The righty, who had a 4.50 ERA and a 2-2 record, will have to work on his command going forward, but he already possesses a pair of plus pitches. With a fastball already in the 80s, which could reach into the 90s someday, and a big breaking ball, Carney has the ability to be nominated for several more awards in the next three years.
The award winners will be announced in next Thursday’s edition of the C-P. Each award winner will receive a plaque and have a picture on the front page with the award’s sponsor in the June 10 edition.