The dust has settled on the 2021 season as we move into the summer months, but it’s time to recognize the best Marion County has to offer on the baseball diamond. While there were only five awards to go around, due a tie in the voting process and both players being deserving of the honor, six players earned player of the year distinctions.
There were 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 was a new award and went to the best first-year starter, regardless of grade. A player could only win one of the honors.
Leading the way is West Marion’s Jayden Duncan, who was one of the best hitters in the county and easily the best pitcher, as the county’s Most Valuable Player. 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 (tied for the county lead), 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.
Offensively there were a few things that made Duncan truly special. The biggest asset to Duncan’s success was his elite barrel control in the zone, which allowed him to make consistent contact no matter the situation. Not only did he strike out the fewest of any starter in Marion County (just three times in 110 plate appearances), he also tied for the county lead in walks drawn. That ability to make consistent, and oftentimes loud, contact allowed him to have 12 more RBI than any other player in the county. It also played up because of his plate discipline and approach, allowing him to get into advantageous hitter counts to hunt the perfect pitch to drive.
While his fastball may not have been the most overpowering pitch on the mound — often sitting in the low-to-mid 80s — his ability to locate it on the corners and change the eye level of batters both up and down in the zone made it a plus offering. His curveball, however, was by far the best off-speed pitch in the county and perhaps the best in all of Class 3A. Throwing it around 71-73 mph, which is a big difference when trying to prepare for a fastball more than 10 mph harder, with sharp vertical and horizontal movement, Duncan often baffled and buckled hitters at the plate.
The Offensive Player of the Year race ended in a tie between two very deserving candidates who were also the other two nominees for MVP — East Marion’s Ja’Quarious Jones and Columbia Academy’s Hays Carley — so both will receive the award. A middle-of-the-order fixture for the Eagles since he was in the seventh grade, 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.
With exceptional hand-eye coordination and bat-to-ball skills combined with grown-man strength stemming from his 5-foot-11, 245-pound frame, Jones was an extremely tough out for every pitcher he faced. While power at the plate is often attributed to extra-base hits, the junior also used his power to get base hits out of balls he couldn’t get the barrel to, muscling what would be popups or weak flares for other batters into singles into the outfield. A running back in football, he also was no slouch on the bases.
Carley, who was a first-time starter and also nominated for Breakout Star of the Year, was the perfect leadoff man to set the table for the Cougars. The middle infielder hit .448 with two home runs, four doubles, three 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.
With a compact swing, quick hands and a strong base, Carley tapped more into his power as the season went along and began driving the ball into the gaps for extra-base hits. Coupling his advanced approach and natural pop with his speed, the second baseman was a nightmare for opposing pitchers in 2021.
Winning Pitcher of the Year with a near unanimous vote, West Marion’s Miles Maliden seemingly came out of nowhere to catapult to the top of Marion County’s elite arms. Maliden, who was 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.
Two of the most important things for a pitcher to do to keep his command are to have a repeatable delivery pitch after pitch and keep the same arm slot. Even the slightest difference can throw off a pitcher’s entire outing. However, Maliden used his varying arm angles as a severe advantage without losing his command. While the majority of the time he stayed over the top, there were multiple times in every game he pitched he would lower his arm angle closer to sidearm to throw off batters, particularly when throwing his breaking ball.
Through raising his batting average nearly 300 points, West Marion’s Tre Broom earned the Most Improved Player award. 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 Josh 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.
Dating back to when he was a freshman, it was clear Broom could be a legitimate force at the plate. The bat speed was definitely there, as was his speed. But with a refined approach this season, the junior made much more consistent contact, allowing his bat speed to take over and produce a ton of hits.
With the potential to join Marion County’s elite arms on the mound in the very near future, Columbia’s Nik Carney was also productive enough in 2021 to earn Breakout Star of the Year honors. The freshman may be the best young pitcher in the county and proved to have plus stuff with 42 strikeouts in 28 innings.
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.