When he steps out of his office on the bottom floor of the F.G. Clark Activity Center, Southern baseball coach Roger Cador meets a line of team portraits that decorates long stretches of hallway in either direction.
There are 14 portraits in all — one for every Southwestern Athletic Conference champion that Cador, entering his 28th season, has coached. But the youngest of the pictures is three years old.
Southern hasn’t won the SWAC tournament since 2009. When the Jaguars fell short last year, it matched the longest stretch of seasons without a championship that Cador’s program has known.
“There’s been a drought — a long drought,” said senior pitcher Daniel Garcia, a freshman on Southern’s most recent conference championship team. “Unheard of in Southern history.”
“Three years,” Cador said, “is an eternity for us.”
Southern begins its chase of another portrait-worthy season when the Jaguars open play against Stillman (Ala.) College at 6 p.m. Friday night. The three-game series will be at Pete Goldsby Field as Lee-Hines Field undergoes a $150,000 renovation of its playing surface and drainage system.
Seated in his office on the eve of the season opener, Cador said it would take some time to figure if his latest team can join the walls of fame, especially given the circumstances of the preseason.
With the work at Lee-Hines Field ongoing, the Jaguars have adjusted their preseason routine considerably. The team has had a pair of intrasquad scrimmages at Goldsby Field. Otherwise, the Jaguars have practiced defense by fielding grounders and popups on a vacant lot near the softball field, and their pitchers have been relegated to flat-ground bullpen sessions in Seymour Gymnasium.
Although the lack of live action has cost Southern some polish, Cador said the Jaguars have hardly complained about their plight. That’s what he likes about this team.
“They understand the things that have occurred, they have no control over,” he said. “They realize, as we go down the road, the benefit is we’ll have a more beautiful field to play on. You accept things for what they are, and then you make the best of it.”
Garcia said the Jaguars have taken the preseason hiccup in stride.
“We may not have the best of the best,” he said. “But what we do have, we take advantage of it.”
How the Jaguars have handled adversity away from their new field has Cador confident they can manage a bad inning on it. But how the team stacks up against the rest of the SWAC is harder to project.
First baseman Brian Rowry, right fielder D.J. Wallace, designated hitter Derrick Hopkins and shortstop Jeremy Lopez are the only everyday starters returning from a team that lost leadoff man Taylor Roy, outfielder Wilmy Marrero, catcher Clint Ourso and infielders Cameron McGriff and DeMario Ellis.
The good news is that Garcia returns along with Jesse “Doc” Holiday and Jose De Leon to give Southern a veteran weekend rotation.
“We’ll have our challenges,” Cador said. “We have to prove we can meet them.”
The Jaguars failed to last year, bowing out early in the SWAC tournament even though it was played on their home field — and even though they entered the postseason on a 16-game tear.
“Last year, we thought we had it,” Garcia said.
Southern’s pitching held up its end of the bargain, but the offense managed only 22 hits in four SWAC tournament games.
“We pitched as well as we had all year,” Cador said. “We just couldn’t get the key hit when we needed to.”
For the third straight season, Southern fell short of another conference title. But Cador said the “drought” on The Bluff is, in large part, a credit to Southern’s competition. Schools throughout the SWAC are pouring more resources into a sport that Southern used to dominate.
“It’s paid dividends,” Cador said. “It’s made us a more competitive league.”
Not that Southern’s goals have changed. The Jaguars enter 2013 with their sights set on bringing a SWAC title back to campus and hanging another portrait outside their coach’s office.
“I’m not going to be selfish and think we’re going to win it every year,” Cador said. “But we want to make sure we’re in the mix for it.”