Southern baseball coach Kerrick Jackson knows the season-opening four-game weekend that starts Friday at UNO is akin to an ambush.
The reigning Southwestern Athletic Conference champion Jaguars play three of their league rivals after facing the Privateers this weekend, and those rivals remember what the Jaguars did to the league last season.
Southern won the regular-season title with an 18-6 mark in Western Division play, then won the conference tournament at Wesley Barrow Stadium.
What Jackson wants his players and the SWAC to know is that the Jaguars will to be a force in his third season, having gone from a 9-32 overall mark two years ago to 34-24 last spring.
“I told our team it's different when you’re at the top of the mountain,” Jackson said Tuesday. “Our first year it was, ‘Kick ’em while they’re down.’ Last year, we put everybody on notice and did it in a dominant fashion. We beat Alabama State 15-0 (in the tournament championship game). Told players you best believe the coach is going to speak to that. They will come out with fire and vinegar.”
Southern plays at UNO at 6:30 p.m Friday. The Jaguars will play Alcorn State at 1 p.m. Saturday; Alabama State at noon Sunday; and Grambling at 3 p.m. Sunday.
The latter three games will be at Wesley Barrow Field in New Orleans.
Jackson said even with 21 new players — eight of them freshmen — the weekend is going to be about consistency over production. The Jaguars will certainly play to win but also to build a team that's ready for postseason play in May.
It won’t be easy with one returning position starter, center fielder Hampton Hudson, but having the program structure in place gives the Jaguars a strong template to work from.
“We’ve brought some kids in we’re excited about,” Jackson said. “They’re talented, but we’re going to be young. It’s going to be shrinking that learning curve as we go along and getting ourselves prepared for the post season, making sure all cylinders are clicking at the end of the year.
“We’re moving in the right direction. We don’t want a ‘right now’ culture but a championship sustained culture. That takes time. We’re getting some kids in that understand. Some returning players weren’t everyday guys, but they’ve been here. They get it and are starting to hold each other accountable.”
Hudson, who will likely bat leadoff, is a good place to start. Jackson also likes that freshman Bubba Thompson came in and established himself quickly as the everyday shortstop. Left-handed-hitting freshman Garrett Felix has won a spot next to Hudson in the outfield with his bat.
Junior college transfers Javonte Dorris and Taj Porter and junior holdover Zavier Moore will also have spots in the batting order. Their fielding positions are still up for grabs. Moore had some starts at second base last year and batted .259 in 24 games. Porter could end up behind the plate. Outfielder Michael Wright had 11 starts last season.
“We’re probably going to take our lumps offensively,” Jackson said. “Their mindset will be production and my mindset will be consistency, quality at-bats. I don’t care if you get hits. Once they buy in, we have a chance to be dynamic offensively.”
Jackson said pitching will carry the burden early and he likes the overall depth, starting with a “three-headed monster” out of the bullpen. He’s got seven others vying for the four weekly starting spots, although ace Eli Finney is rehabbing from tendonitis in his right shoulder.
“I’m a believer that you build from the back forward,” he said. “We put a lot of emphasis on making sure we get guys who can shut it down. Last year we were 26-3 or 26-4 with the lead after the sixth inning. That will be a separator in this league. We don’t have just one closer.”
Fourth-year junior Brandon Morris, JC transfer Dimitri Frank and holdover junior Mychal Page will front the bullpen. They all throw in the low 90s with good breaking balls, field their position well and possess high baseball IQs.
While Finney continues to rehab, the staff will be led by JC transfer Anthony Fidanza, who will start against UNO. Wilhelm Allen will take the mound against Alcorn State, followed by lefties Jerome Bohannon and Darren Smith the next two games.
“We’re going to have some different lineups,” Jackson said of the weekend games. “I don’t know if we’re going to play a lot of players. We’re slim on position players. I want us to pitch well and establish ourselves as a staff that will throw strikes and be competitive and play really good defense.”