No. 4 seeds seldom emerge from NCAA baseball regionals victorious.
That’s OK with Southern baseball coach Kerrick Jackson.
The second-year coach who took the Jaguars from worst to first is thinking about the long game as his team prepares to take on No. 6 national seed Mississippi State at noon Friday in the Starkville regional at Dudy Noble Field.
No. 2 seed Miami (39-18) plays No. 3 seed Central Michigan (46-12) in the other game.
Southern (32-22) was once a regular participant in the tournament field but is coming off a 10-year hiatus, and the odds of knocking off the homestanding Bulldogs (46-19) are slim. Nonetheless, Jackson has preached to his team that no matter the situation, the goal is to get to Omaha, and this weekend is the next test.
“The quality of teams (in the regional) will give us a chance to measure ourselves against some of the top programs in the country,” Jackson said. “Mississippi State arguably has dominated all year. Miami is a storied program. We’ll be in a situation where we say, ‘Hey, do we play like those guys?’ Do we go about our business as well as those guys do?’ I’m excited for that, to see where we fit in the grand scheme of college baseball.”
Jackson will find out quickly. Mississippi State challenged for the Southeastern Conference title all season and is ranked no lower than No. 5 in the major college baseball polls. Miami has a storied history in the tournament and is no lower than No. 20. Central Michigan has received votes in each poll and is No. 16 according to Collegiate Baseball.
Jackson hoping is that his returning players for 2020 pick up the vibe and continue the climb rather than leveling off. Not only did the team rebound from a 9-33 record in 2018, the program has burst forth from APR-related practice and recruiting restrictions.
The Jaguars have responded by hitting a perfect 1,000 APR score in the latest ranking, a nice coefficient with this season’s record.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen this fast, but I knew it was going to happen,” Jackson said. “They asked me in my first interview and I didn’t want to put a timetable on it. We’ll get there when we get there.
“To move the needle like we did is tremendous, and makes it so the next needle move isn’t as far. Now we’ve been to a regional and won the conference championship, and done it in dominating fashion. The expectation now is we can continue to play at a high level so the ultimate goal of getting to Omaha is closer now.”
Southern is known for its hitting, but the Jaguars made the tournament because they pitched well enough and played defense on the same level.
Southern led the conference in hitting (.315) and fielding (.960) and was second in pitching. Its pitchers struggled early in the season but steadily improved. Jackson kept pushing his team to remain confident and it netted them several come-from-behind victories. The indications were there early as the 2018 team lost six games in their final at-bat and 15 by two runs or fewer.
The regional berth has reignited interest in Southern baseball, which had prospered under former coach Roger Cador.
"It’s one of the best turnarounds in Division I sports this year,” Southern athletic director Roman Banks said. “I know what he went through; I’ve been in his shoes. It takes a lot of sacrifice and it couldn’t happen to a better guy. You talk about a guy with great character who you won’t know is in the room because he’s real subtle. But he’s very intense when it comes to coaching.”
One things he’s sold his team on is that everyone plays. Jackson substituted freely throughout the season, seldom using the same lineup two games in a row. That has helped prepare players expected to step up into starting positions 2020.
He’s also adamant about playing good defense.
“That’s coach’s biggest priority,” senior shortstop Malik Blaise said. “Playing clean baseball, making tough plays when we need to. We’ve worked hard on it. Our defense takes care of itself.”
Blaise and third baseman Tyler LaPorte have been solid all year at stopping grounders from getting through the left side of the infield. Center fielder Javeyan Williams is another defensive star who has saved runs with his ability to track down balls to either side and coming in or going back.
The Jaguars’ defensive prowess isn’t limited to those three but is accentuated by their play.
“I like T-Lap; he’s going to hold his own and I can trust him on anything,” Blaise said. “Javeyan is electric. It’s amazing watching him. A lot of people don’t get to see him at practice. He’ll lay out after running 60 feet to catch a ball, full extension. It’s crazy.”