The Southern baseball team is building for the future.
The Jaguars have 22 newcomers on their roster and plan to utilize several freshmen, some right out of the box.
On top of that they learned just a week before the opener that they are ineligible for the NCAA tournament due to shortcomings in their Academic Progress Rates.
When Southern opens the season against Grambling in the three-day MLB Urban Youth Invitational on Friday at Wesley Barrow Stadium, it will be trying to win as many games as it can. But it also knows that the pay-off from this season will come down the road.
That was the expectation even before the NCAA probation kicked in.
Coach Roger Cador is looking on the bright side as he begins his 32nd season.
“The beautiful thing about this year is we can play these kids and let them grow and struggle and keep them in there and they’ll become very good players,” Cador said. “I think that’s something we can build upon if they can be quick learners and quick forgetters — learn things quickly and forget bad things quickly.”
Cador acknowledged that there will be growing pains, at least early on, due to the lack of experience.
He also said academics were even more important than usual in choosing this recruiting class because of the need to get back in good standing with the NCAA. But that doesn’t mean the Jaguars don’t have talent — they do.
This season may be seen as primarily a developmental period, but when the Southwestern Athletic Conference coaches and sports information directors made their preseason predictions, Southern didn’t fare badly. It was picked in the middle of the pack — third among five teams in the West division — but its five first-place votes were one more than those received by No. 1 pick Texas Southern and No. 2 pick Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Some newcomers are expected to become contributors later rather than sooner and the Jaguars are going to have to be fundamentally sound.
They don’t have a bunch of home run hitters and hard-throwing pitchers that can overpower the opposition and overcome self-inflicted wounds.
“We’ve got to play good defense,” Cador said. “When we have runners in scoring position we’re going to have to have a good success rate in getting those runners home in order to be successful. We’re going to have to be able to manufacture runs.”
Catcher Jose de la Torre, Southern’s top run producer a year ago, returns for his senior season, but there are only three other returnees and they started a total of 59 games.
Five of the pitchers played last season, making a combined 41 appearances, inlcuding 14 starts. They had a combined record of 4-11 and pitched a total of 104.1 innings.
Cador said he likes what he has seen from the way these players approach practice.
“I like their attitude,” he said. “They work hard and they have fun and they smile a lot. That’s important.
“I place a premium on kids being able to smile and come to the park happy because they are fortunate when you look at how many kids wish they could be in their situation and are never going to. So we really touch on the positive to try and make kids understand.”
Cador said he’s confident the players will maintain a positive attitude in the wake of the NCAA ineligibility. Last year’s team was in a similar situation and made it all the way to the final of the SWAC tournament.
“What I’ve found out over the years is the one thing about young people is they really don’t care much about what happened once they’re moving forward,” he said. “They don’t take a lot of stuff with them into the future. They have a good ability to leave that stuff alone.”
The Jaguars play just one home game in their first 16 and three prior to their Southwestern Athletic Conference home opener March 25 against Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
“That’s huge, but I like it,” Cador said. “I really do because bonding and teaching moments can take place on the road. They know there’s nobody to go cry to. They have to depend on each other and trust the coaching staff.”
Work is beginning on phase two of the Southern clubhouse — the centerpiece of which is an indoor hitting facility — and the Jaguars hope to be able to use it before the season is over.