There was a quiet, collective gasp at the Southern University watch party when the LSU regional popped up early in the NCAA Division I baseball playoffs selection show Monday.
“McNeese State” muttered a voice from among the players, just before Stony Brook appeared as LSU’s No. 4-seed foe, leading to the second-biggest cheer amongst the Blue and Gold faithful at The Grind, which hosted the gathering.
It’s not that Southern doesn’t want to travel across town to play in one of the nation’s toughest environments. Jaguar players, coaches and officials wanted the “full experience” for the playoffs against a team it hasn’t played — and beaten — in this turnaround season.
As it is, Southern traded one hostile atmosphere for another, landing in the Mississippi State regional and the newly upgraded Dudy Noble Field. The Jaguars will play the No. 6 nationally seeded Bulldogs (46-13) at noon Friday. No. 2 seed Miami (39-18) plays No. 3 Central Michigan (46-12) at 7 p.m.
Southern has been sent to the Baton Rouge regional four times previously, the last in 2009, which is also the last time the Jaguars made the tournament. Under second-year coach Kerrick Jackson, Southern executed a remarkable turnaround from 9-33 to 32-22 and the Southwest Athletic Conference tournament title.
“I was kind of frantic and anxious about where we were going to go,” senior shortstop Malik Blaise said. “I saw LSU pop up and Vandy pop up. Then there were only a couple other places we could go. I like the choice. (LSU) would have been good for the fans, but for the full experience, it will be fun.
Said senior center fielder Javeyan Williams: “We want to get that full experience in the regionals. It would have been nice to play at home, but we also will take the chance of going to Mississippi State and playing a new team. We’re really excited.”
Southern might not have had a psychological edge against LSU, since the Jaguars beat the Tigers, 7-2, on April 9. But the assignment is just as tough against the Bulldogs, who play in a stadium that holds 13,000, about 3,000 more than LSU’s Alex Box Stadium.
Last year, Southern lost 5-0 there in a game that was 0-0 in the seventh inning. Mississippi State is known as one of the most vocal college baseball fan bases in the nation.
“Our guys know they will be in a competitive environment,” Jackson said. “We’re going to control the control-ables, throw strikes, play defense, have quality at-bats and let the chips fall where they may.
“It’s huge for the program. People talk about where we came from, 9-33. It’s not a credit to me, but to our team and assistant coaches; there can’t be a better Division I baseball turnaround story this year. That’s a testament to our guys.”
Williams and Blaise were especially joyous as four-year players who worked through the down years.
“I’m ecstatic; I went through the good, the bad and the ugly,” Williams said. “Worst to first in our conference, to see this program turn around and be one of the leaders to do that, it’s an amazing feeling. I can’t put it into words.”
Tournament ticket books will go on sale at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and can be obtained by calling 1-888-GO-DAWGS. Single-game ticket information will be available Friday at 8 a.m. online or at 9 a.m. at Dudy Noble Field at the right field box office. More information can be obtained at www.hailstate.com/tickets.