PRAIRIE VIEW, Texas — Oh, what a difference a year makes.
Twelve months after finishing 9-33, Southern won its 27th baseball game of the season and clinched first place in the Southwestern Athletic Conference Western Division for the first time since 2012.
The Jaguars surged to a big early lead Saturday afternoon and coasted to a 12-8 win over Prairie View.
“I wish we could have won a little prettier, but I will take an ugly win over a pretty loss any day,” second-year SU coach Kerrick Jackson said. “It feels good, but it’s not done yet. We need to finish in the conference tournament.”
Southern (27-19, 16-5 SWAC) jumped ahead 9-2 by the third inning. Ashanti Wheatley and Malik Blaise each had two hits and two RBIs to lead the Jaguars, while Johnny Johnson scored four runs.
“It feels really good that we’ve made that big of an adjustment from last year,” Wheatley said. “I think we are gritty and never want to settle. The No. 1 seed feels good, but I think there is still work to get done and we are going to keep competing.”
Southern starter Eli Finney gave up 11 hits but threw strikes and limited the damage, holding PV to four runs over seven innings.
Prairie View pitchers were not as fortunate, walking 11 Southern batters and hitting three more. The Panthers outhit SU 15-9, but the free passes — along with four errors — were too much to overcome.
“We look to take advantage of anything they give us,” Blaise said. “We have a high level of confidence, but we are going to go out there and still work harder.”
Blaise got the Jaguars scoring started in the first with an RBI double scoring Johnny Johnson. Bobby Johnson followed with a sacrifice fly, knocking in Wheatley.
The Panthers tied it in the bottom half of the first, but Johnny Johnson ignited a five-run second inning with a bases-loaded two-run single. Two batters later, Willie Ward followed with another two-run bases-loaded single to put the Jaguars up 7-2.
Wheatley made it 9-2 with a two-run, two-out single in the third. The Jaguars tacked on more runs in the sixth on a Tyler La Porte sacrifice fly and a Blaise sac fly in the ninth.
“It feels great to finally solidify that top spot in the west,” Johnson said. “We battled and had really good at-bats today. We have a lot of confidence going into the tournament and know we can play with anybody.”
Prairie View (16-31, 8-13) was led by Xavier Jefferson and Kellen Rodgers, who each had two hits and two RBIs. The Panthers scored four runs in the final two innings to make the score closer. The nine-inning game lasted almost four hours.
The Jaguars will play a doubleheader beginning at noon Sunday. Neither game will change the top of the Western standings.
Southern will begin the SWAC tournament as the West No. 1 seed May 15-16 in New Orleans, with an automatic ticket to the NCAA tournament on the line. The last time SU won the SWAC tournament was in 2009.
“We have a real resilient group,” Jackson said. “Last year, we didn’t battle back and we got walked off six times. This year, they are battling and headed in the right direction.
“But our guys are not satisfied, so hopefully we can continue to build on that and continue to get even better as we go on.”