Southern University baseball is clearly back on track with a 28-21 record and a Southwest Athletic Conference West Division title in 2019.
But the Jaguars are still a little bit short of their glory days, a situation they can remedy in the SWAC baseball tournament beginning Wednesday at Wesley Barrow Stadium in New Orleans.
Southern plays Arkansas-Pine Bluff at 6 p.m. in what the Jaguars hope is the first of four victories to win the tournament. A tournament title is the only way into the NCAA playoffs, where Southern found itself eight times under former coach Roger Cador.
Southern’s history includes four NAIA College World Series appearances, one NAIA championship and a pair of black college national titles. Last year’s 9-33 record was a launchpad for the current success under second-year coach Kerrick Jackson, and Jaguar Nation is noticing.
“We’re getting the feeling from the fans that Southern baseball is back,” first baseman Coby Taylor said. “We didn’t have a lot of fans at the beginning of the season, now we’re getting a lot more followers. It’s awesome. Everybody is talking about it. A lot of the alumni have come back and told us they’re glad we’re getting back to where we were. We’re expecting a crowd this week. We need it.”
Jackson had driven the point home to his team that the turnaround in record is meaningless if the Jaguars don’t take care of business in the tournament. Southern has been at the top of the conference or near it in offense all season with a .310 batting average and conference-high 382 runs scored. Southern is also the best fielding team in the league with a .961 percentage and league-low 67 errors.
It will likely come down to pitching for Southern, which has improved over the last month of the season but still been spotty.
“There’s somewhat of a different mindset because it’s win or go home,” Jackson said. “For us it comes down to the pitching. If our pitchers go out and throw strikes and compete, we’re in a really good spot. Our offense has been clicking all year long.”
Southern’s starters most of the season have been, in no particular order, Eli Finney (4-2, 5.29 ERA), Jerome Bohannon (3-5, 6.71), Justin Freeman (2-2, 7.29) and John Guinze (3-1, 5.65). Finney moved from midweek starter to Friday starter for the final conference series and has been one of the more consistent Jaguar hurlers.
Finney will get the starting assignment Wednesday. Finney and Guinze have been the most effective with their control. Finney is averaging 3.65 walks per game and Guinze 2.21.
Jackson is also slightly concerned about how his team handles the long layoff since the last game on April 30. Rain washed out a May 1 game at Alcorn State and disrupted practice plans last week. Southern was unable to practice on its home field and resorted to using the football stadium which has similar turf to Barrow.
It’s especially an issue for pitchers to work off a dirt mound.
“You would like not to have the time off but at the same time we had a double midweek schedule last week,” Jackson said. “We threw several innings with our relievers today but when you start intrasquad and you’ve been playing opponents all year long it slows down a little. We tried to do a few things to keep them engaged and competitive and keep the energy up.”
Southern should also be buoyed by the return of Hunter David, whose .388 batting average leads the team. But David has missed 18 games with a nagging hamstring injury. He is expected to be ready Wednesday.
Even without David thee Jaguars have been consistent offensively. Leadoff hitter and third baseman Tyler LaPorte is batting .376 and had knocked in 55 runs, second in the SWAC. Center fielder Javeyan Williams is batting .373 with a team best .584 slugging percentage, and he’s third in the SWAC with 26 stolen bases.