William Carey eyes national title in return to NAIA World Series

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William Carey baseball is back in the NAIA World Series.

It marks the first time in program history that the Crusaders have made back-to-back world series appearances. In 2023, they were a win short of the semifinals after a historic season in Hattiesburg.

Bobby Halford, who is in his 39th season as the head coach, notched his 1300th win in the series last season. With 1,337 victories, he’s the active wins leader in the NAIA and has the second highest total in Mississippi history behind former Mississippi State head coach Ron Polk.

After a dominant trek to Lewiston, Idaho for the world series a year ago, the path wasn’t as smooth this time around. The Crusaders hovered around the .500 mark midway through the campaign and were in danger of missing the postseason altogether. A change in attitude was required.

“With the players we lost, we knew we would have to do it a little different than last year,” Halford explained earlier this week. “The guys we lost provided a lot of offense and we lost a big game pitcher who could beat anybody.”

Halford speaks of Patrick Lee and Bobby Lada, who combined for 28 home runs and more than 100 RBI for the Crusader offense last year, and pitcher AJ Stinson, the shutdown workhorse on the mound for two years in Hattiesburg. All three are currently playing professional baseball.

The Crusaders righted the ship after a road sweep of perennial top 25 Loyola New Orleans in late April. Since then, the script has flipped.

“At that point, it was a different mindset,” explained the longtime head coach. “It became a businesslike approach – less hooplah. I saw the maturity take over. And I told my staff that weekend that we have a chance to really turn this thing around.”

Turn it around they did. Since that series in New Orleans, the Crusaders have won 11 straight and stormed through both the Southern States conference tournament and the NAIA opening round to punch their ticket to Lewiston.

Veterans like Jake Lycette, Bailey Hendon, and Preston Ratliff caught fire to spark the late season charge, along with others like newcomer shortstop Bridley Thomas. And the steady tip of the spear has remained Ferris Trophy Award finalist RJ Stinson, who is again hitting over .400 in batting average and reaches base 53 percent of the time.

Halford noted that the starting pitching has also rebounded from an inconsistent start, while the bullpen has become the strength of the team. And the experience of playing in last year’s world series will go a long way.

Caleb Hamill, the voice of Crusader baseball who will have the call in Lewiston, noted that the Crusaders are a different beast as they roll into the world series.

“They never give up,” Hamil said. “There were a lot of points in this season where they could have said ‘Well, this just isn’t our year.’”

“If they can keep this train moving, I don’t know if there’s a lot that is going to slow this squad down. You can’t count them out at any point.”

In a state known for its college baseball, William Carey’s success can often get buried beneath the hulking shadow of the three high level Division 1 programs. But Halford was quick in his reasoning of why his program is worth paying attention to.

“There are a lot of NAIA coaches and players that could be other places – bigger places,” Halford said. “But they stay at this level because it’s more than just baseball. It’s special. You get something here that you can’t at other places and it means more in a lot of ways.”

This is baseball in its truest form,” Hamill added. “These are amateur college players that play for the love of the game. With that, they also play at a very high level. This brand of baseball is entertaining.”

The Crusaders, the 7-seed in the 10-team field, will take on 10-seed Indiana Southeast in game one of the world series on Friday. Their veteran head man says the buzz he feels hasn’t changed since the start.

Halford has more wins than any other active NAIA baseball coach.

“You always get the same butterflies I got the first day,” Halford said. “But baseball is baseball no matter what level or what day of the year. The pressure is always the same.”

Halford will coach his 2,136th game as the head coach at William Carey to begin the world series. On the banks of the Snake River in Lewiston, he’ll attempt to lead his program to something they’ve never done in his tenure – win the whole thing.

William Carey will begin their second straight world series appearance against IU-Southeast on Friday night at 9:05 CST and can be heard live on SuperTalk 97.3 in Hattiesburg or on supertalkhattiesburg.com.

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