The Southern Jaguars fought and toughed their way through four games to get to the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament championship game.
All the while, pitcher Eli Finney, who started Southern's first game in the tournament, waited.
Well rested, Finney allowed just three hits in 8⅓ innings in shutting out Alabama State, and the Jaguars broke loose for 16 hits in a resounding 15-0 victory Sunday at Wesley Barrow Stadium in New Orleans.
“The rest was huge,” said Finney, who struck out six and walked two. “The guys got us to Sunday. The defense is always good, and these guys always put up runs. It was a good feeling knowing that if I can just throw strikes and keep runs to a minimum, that good things could happen.”
The tournament championship is the first for a Jaguars baseball since 2009 and gave Southern the SWAC's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
Finney's change-up kept the Hornets, the East Division's No. 1 seeds, off-balance, and he mixed it with a curve and a fastball, all three of which were usually around the plate.
He had a 3-0 lead to work with by the second inning, and it ballooned to 7-0 in the fifth, even though Alabama State started its ace, right-hander Darren Kelly, this season's SWAC pitcher of the year.
Southern coach Kerrick Jackson said he talked to his team about being aggressive. The Jaguars were coming off an emotional 7-6 win against Texas Southern on Saturday in which they overcame a 6-1 deficit. Earlier in the tournament, the Jaguars did not respond well Friday, losing 8-6 to Texas Southern after a draining, come-from behind 10-9 win in 10 innings vs. the Tigers on Thursday.
However, the Jaguars swung the bats from the start Sunday.
“We were locked in,” Jackson said. “We came in with an approach and they trusted it and they executed it to the best of their ability, and it worked out in our favor.
“Kelly gets a lot of strikeouts, and he's a two-pitch guy. I told them 'Let's take one of those pitches away from him.' Pick a side of the plate, stick with that side until you get to two strikes, and if he throws you that fastball on that side of the plate, let's go get it and be aggressive.”
Aggressive they were from the start. The Jaguars scored in the first inning on right fielder Ashanti Wheatley's double that brought in third baseman Tyler LaPorte. In the second, catcher Bobby Johnson hit a two-run homer to left.
In the decisive fifth, LaPorte ripped an opposite-feld, two-run triple to the right-field corner, second baseman Johnny Johnson doubled home LaPorte, and Johnson scored on first baseman Hunter David's sacrifice fly to center field for a 7-0 lead.
Johnny Johnson went 4-for-6 Sunday with three RBIs to pace Southern. LaPorte, who went 2-for-5 with five RBIs and three runs. He was the tournament's most valuable player after going 10-for-23 (.425) in five games, with nine RBIs, eight runs, two triples and a home run.
He was joined on the all-tournament team by Jaguars center fielder Javeyan Williams and Finney. Williams went 4-for-5 with four runs Sunday and led Southern with a .476 batting average (10-for-21), with two doubles and four RBI. Finney went 2-0 with a 1.76 earned-run average in 15 1/3 innings, getting 11 strikeouts and walking three.
The rest of the all-tournament team were Jahmoi Percival and Dexter McCaay, Grambling State; Daniel Lingua and Tyler Gordon, Prairie View; Olajide Oloruntimilehim and Nic Garza, Texas Southern; and Terrell McCall, Jeremy Rivera and Santiago Garcia, Alabama State.