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  • Matt Colville

Milton Wheeler Field – William Carey Crusaders


Photos by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey


Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.14

Milton Wheeler Field 432 County Dr

Hattiesburg, MS 39401


William Carey Crusaders website

Milton Wheeler Field website


Year Opened: 2006

Capacity: 498

 

Welcome to Baseburg, Mississippi

Baseburg is a fitting nickname for the baseball-loving city of Hattiesburg – the Hub City has won more Dixie Youth World Series than any other city in the country, and in 2023 will host the Dixie Youth World Series. Additionally, year in and year out the Southern Miss Golden Eagles are one of the top teams in the country. Playing in front of packed houses at beautiful Pete Taylor Park, it's easy to see why this is one of the top baseball programs in the country; with a trip to Omaha in 2009 and countless regional appearances, most people think the Golden Eagles rule the roost in the Hub City. But there is a 'little brother' about 3 miles down the road, that also has an impressive list of accomplishments, that being William Carey University.


Nicknamed the Crusaders, the small, private Baptist school has competed in the Southern State Athletic Conference of NAIA since the 2010-11 school year, after competing in the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference since 1981. Since the start of the Carey baseball team in 1955 the Crusaders have become a national powerhouse in baseball every year – as of 2023 the Crusaders have won 20 conference championships, advanced to NAIA Regionals 26 times, played in 4 NAIA College World Series, and won a national championship in 1969.


The college originally moved to Hattiesburg from Poplarville, MS as a women's college, in 1906. The school became co-ed in 1954 and changed its name to William Carey College, named after the Christian missionary. Despite the small school nature of the college, it is quite large compared to most of the schools in the conference, with an enrollment of 3,200 and spread out over 120 acres in a neighborhood in south Hattiesburg.


Food & Beverage 2

There is one small concession stand at the main entrance; the basics are sold here, with prices about average. Hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, peanuts, and candy round out the menu, with bottled Coke products as the soft drinks provided. The one plus is the fact that they have a grill set up behind the concession stand, cooking the hot dogs and hamburgers fresh.


Atmosphere 4

The Crusaders play on campus at Milton Wheeler Field, which opened in 2006, replacing a smaller field located on the property. The beautiful ballpark is a part of the Larry W. Kennedy Sports Complex, which also includes the Joseph and Nancy Fail Softball Complex and a beach volleyball court. Named after a long-time President of the University, the sports complex was dedicated in 2007.


The Crusaders play at one of the finest facilities in all of NAIA – when you enter the grounds you walk right under a large brick archway that has the name of the sports complex, with the ticket office located underneath. For weekend games they have a tent set up at the main entrance selling William Carey merch. As you enter you walk up a paved sidewalk with the softball field to the right and Milton Wheeler Field to the left.


When the softball field and baseball field were built, they were built as mirror images of each other, so they look exactly alike. A large brick building that houses the press box, one suite, and the concessions looms over the baseball field. A small plaque with all the members of the 1969 National Championship team hangs on the brick press box as you walk up, as well as a plaque dedicated to Milton Wheeler, a long-time professor at the University.


The field is sunken into the ground, so when you walk up on the concourse you then walk down to your seat. The field faces southeast, and behind home plate is a nice little grandstand that extends down the first and third base lines; the grandstand has 318 red chairback seats and 180 metal bleacher seats.


The concourse on the first baseline features three picnic tables with umbrellas, from which you can view the action on the field. Milton Wheeler Field also has a small-town feel to it, as along the outfield are wall signs for all the local Hattiesburg businesses, while the view beyond the outfield is hundreds of tall virgin pine trees, found throughout south Mississippi.


Neighborhood 3

The William Carey campus is located in a residential neighborhood right down Highway 49 – there is one small bar called Shenanigans located the highway about a mile away, but other than that, there is nothing within walking distance of the college, so you'll have to go into town to see anything.


Hattiesburg is a typical large college town, with plenty to do for all ages; there is a zoo nearby, a mall with plenty of shopping, and plenty of restaurants spread out throughout the city. If you are into the outdoors, the Okatoma River provides an excellent place for canoeing, while the Long Leaf Trace is a popular 44-mile trail that runs through the city.


For places to stay there are a ton of hotels located closer to the interstate, and Paul B. Johnson State Park and the Elks Campground nearby remain popular spots for camping if you are coming to town for a weekend in the spring.


Fans 4

Many of the Carey students live on campus, or the apartments right off campus. The Crusaders are also very competitive in baseball year in and year out, with the Crusaders constantly ranked in the NAIA Top 25 every year – the 2023 team ended up finishing the regular season ranked #12 in the country and advanced to the 2023 NAIA World Series in Idaho. This works out great for William Cary, as many of the students live nearby, and winning brings fans to games. It also helps that 'The Milt' is one of the nicest facilities at the conference, and could easily rival a small D1 college's facilities.


It is hard to get an official attendance count, but I would say each game averages about 300-500 people. However, even though almost every game reaches the seating capacity, you should have no problem grabbing a seat in the chairbacks, as many people are scattered about the complex; you can even find many people standing on the concourse, particularly near the picnic tables. You can also find a good number of fans sitting down along the first and third base lines. For a small school, fans turn out and stay from start to finish – if you didn't know any better, you wouldn't know you were at an NAIA baseball game.


Access 3

Hattiesburg is conveniently located less than an hour and a half from New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, Mobile, and Jackson, so getting here should be no problem. William Carey University is located right off Highway 49 about 3 miles south of the Southern Miss campus; the small campus is located in a neighborhood east of the main highway. You should have no problem finding a parking spot on campus, as there are plenty of parking lots available.


Return on Investment 3

A lot of times they will not even charge for admission to baseball games. Unfortunately, though, at some games, they do charge for tickets, and it is hit or miss which games they will charge for. For most Saturday games they tend to charge, as well as on nights when the softball team is also playing at the same time.


Regardless, ticket prices are reasonable, costing only $7 and you are free to sit wherever you want. Attending a game here is also a perfect experience for the baseball purist – it has a small-town, neighborhood feel where everyone knows everyone at the ballpark, and you are also getting to see some of the best small college baseball in the country.


Extras 3

In over 60 years of baseball, William Carey has had 30 players drafted into MLB, with one player making it to ‘The Show’; in 1963 catcher John Stephenson wrapped up a four-year career at Carey, then went undrafted by the Mets in the 1963 Draft. By 1964 he had made the Met's opening day roster and was in the lineup for the first-ever game at Shea Stadium.


Stephenson had a 10-year career in the big leagues for the Mets, Cubs, Giants, and Angels. On Sept 11, 1966, Stephenson was the starting catcher and batting mate for a rookie pitcher making his big league debut – that pitcher's name was Nolan Ryan. Stephenson would later coach the Crusaders from 1974-1985, and then Southeastern Louisiana from 1985-1990.


The Crusaders are now coached by the legendary Bobby Halford, entering his 38th season as of 2023. Halford coached 8 seasons under John Stephenson before succeeding him in 1986. Halford holds a 61% win rate in over 2,000 games coached, and he also played at William Carey in the early 1970s. At the main entrance to the stadium, a small rock with his name inscribed sits with a makeshift garden constructed around it – this is a nice tribute to the legendary head coach.


The small college would face its biggest test in the early morning of January 21, 2017, when an F-3 tornado ripped through South Hattiesburg and went right through the Carey campus. There were multiple injuries on campus, with all 59 buildings on campus receiving some sort of damage, including 6 that were destroyed.


Milton Wheeler Field escaped with minimal damage other than some destroyed lights, forcing the Crusaders to play their first two months of games on the road and at various junior college ballparks. The Crusaders would have their second-best season ever that year, advancing to the NAIA College World Series and finishing third in the country that season.


If you have time to walk around the campus before the game, you will see the campus buildings look new despite the college being over 100 years old – that is because many of the buildings have been renovated following the tornado; almost every building received a new roof after the tornado damage.

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