Southern executed perhaps the top turnaround season in NCAA Division I baseball this season, and though the Jaguars' 32-24 campaign is over, they are far from finished.
Two days after a 12-2 loss to Miami at the Starkville (Mississippi) regional, you could hear the enthusiasm in second-year coach Kerrick Jackson’s voice for getting Southern ready to make the next step.
The Jaguars went toe to toe with Mississippi State in the opening game, pulling ahead in the middle innings and still tied 6-6 going into the seventh. The home team finally finished off the No. 4-seed Jaugars with five runs in the last two innings.
But Jackson got what he wanted: his players experienced a taste of the postseason and saw that the difference between themselves and the college baseball elite isn’t that great.
“When you talk about physical ability, we’re just as good as they were, no question,” Jackson said. “The difference between us and them was a little more discipline, a little more focus. We’re not throwing strikes; that’s what killed us in Mississippi State game.
“We had a change in attitude, in the culture. We’re working on the mindset and how this game is played. We made some strides, but we aren’t there yet. We did some things that cost us the ballgames that we were in control of. But at the end of the day, the resilience these guys have was evident with the games we were able to come back and win or stay in. I’m proud of them on that part.”
Southern went 9-33 in Jackson’s first year and nearly quadrupled their win total in 2019. Jackson is losing nine seniors, including five everyday starters. But his philosophy of playing nearly the entire roster is building some foundation and depth in the program in preparation of making the next step.
Holdover players will be expected to carry their regional experiences into the 2020 season and move the needle a little further.
“Now we’ve done it in Year 2, it should allow (recruits) to say, ‘Wow, look at that.’ ” Jackson said. “I hope our kids and this team gets more national recognition than what they have. HBCUs get pushed aside when it comes to baseball. What we were able to do, we did against non-HBCU schools. ... We were competitive and beat some teams we weren’t expected to beat. There can’t be a better one-year turnaround.
“Now the expectations are higher than just making the conference tournament, we have a whole other level of expectations. We showed we had the ability. This year wasn’t a fluke.”
The Jaguars will be looking for improved pitching and should get there, losing only three pitchers. One of those, Connor Whalen, will be hard to replace as SWAC Reliever of the Year with five wins and seven saves. Staff ace Eli Finney returns, and Jackson has high hopes for some incoming junior-college pitchers and 6-foot-5 freshman right-hander Caleb Maloof.
“We’ll have more depth,” Jackson said. “We’ll have better strike throwers, potentially they’ll have better stuff than guys we had this year. Finney, (Larry) Barabino, Jackson (Cullen), (Wilhelm) Allen, (this) allows their roles to be solidified. It will make them better because we won’t have to ask them to do things they aren’t capable of doing.”
The big losses are third baseman Tyler LaPorte, shortstop Malik Blaise, outfielders Javeyan Williams and Ashanti Wheatley and catcher Bobby Johnson. Jackson said he expects to shift left fielder Hampton Hudson to center field, but other positions are up for grabs.
Catcher-first baseman Hunter David and first baseman Coby Taylor bring some pop back next year, and Jackson wants to pepper the lineup around them with speed an athleticism. David led the SWAC in hitting much of the season before a hamstring injury slowed him.
“We’ll stay athletic,” he said. “I want to have four or five guys that can steal 20 bases, that’s what our offense will be premised on. Some guys like Taylor and David that have some sock.”
Jackson said he will announce his signing class after this week’s Major League Baseball draft and that he’s excited about the incoming freshmen. In that group are Maloof, second baseman Jahli Hendicks of Philadelphia, catcher Brandon Green of Chicago and local outfielder Austin Richard of Dunham.
“We have some young freshmen coming in with high baseball IQ but also a high upside in ability,” Jackson said. “There will be a learning curve, but we have people with better baseball knowledge. It will be tough on the coaching staff to make sure we put them in position to be successful.”