Sometimes, he watched his teammates playing baseball from the top row of the stands at Lee-Hines Field, wishing he had worked just a little harder.
DeMario Ellis was never more than a few hundred feet from the home dugout. But in many ways, as Southern closed in on another conference championship in 2009, Ellis could not have felt farther away.
He should’ve been in that dugout, playing with the guys, helping them win the Southwestern Athletic Conference title.
“I had a few little issues,” Ellis said. “I messed up. It was a great season, man. A great team and a great time. And I missed out on it.”
Essentially, he had come all the way from Pasadena, Calif., to do two things: play ball and earn a degree.
In ’09, he couldn’t play ball. And he hadn’t gotten very far toward earning that degree.
The year before, as a true freshman, Ellis stabilized the middle infield with a dependable glove and arm.
He also hit .310 with 31 runs and 29 RBIs, had more starts (44) and played in more games (45) than any other Jaguar that season.
All the while, however, his grades were slipping. To remain eligible for the ’09 season, he had to take, and pass, two summer courses — one in sociology, one in psychology. He got a B in one of them. He got an F in the other.
Ellis remembered getting the phone call from his coach, the iconic Roger Cador.
“You let me down,” Cador told him. “You let your teammates down. And you let yourself down.”
Ellis? He didn’t have much of a response. Ellis blew it, and he knew it.
Without him, the Jaguars won the SWAC title anyway, then moved on to the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional at LSU, where they promptly went two-and-out.
“I missed out on a ring,” he said. “I could’ve contributed, maybe could’ve helped them go a little farther.”
Now, he’s got one last chance.
The SWAC tournament begins Wednesday at Lee-Hines Field, where Southern, the No. 1 West seed, faces No. 4 East seed Mississippi Valley State at 3 p.m.
This time around, Ellis figures to play a central role in the Jaguars’ quest for the championship.
He’s the dependable second baseman for a Southern ballclub that barreled through the end of the regular season, matching strong defense and timely hitting with a great pitching staff to finish on a 16-game winning streak.
Now they’re back in their home park for the double-elimination tournament, attempting to win it for the first time since ’09.
A fifth-year senior, Ellis moved from shortstop to second base — his natural position — after Jeremy Lopez returned from a hamstring injury in March. That’s just about the time when the Jaguars took off.
Hitting eighth in the order, Ellis has a .302 average, thanks in part to his willingness to work the count. His 23 walks are second on the team to Lopez’s 28, and his 32 runs rank third.
On defense, Ellis is still prone to the occasional errant throw — he leads the team in assists (102) and ranks second in errors (10) — but for the most part, his glove is slick and dependable.
Never was that more obvious than the final weekend of the regular season, when, during a three-game series with Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Ellis charged slow ground balls, made diving stabs at line drives, made long, tough throws from behind the bag, and teamed with Lopez for a series of highlight-reel double plays.
“Compared to shortstop, second base is a little easier,” Lopez said. “But it’s not as easy as (Ellis) makes it look. ... On double plays, all I have to do is get it near the bag.
“If I get it near the bag, I know he’s going to catch it and turn it.”
Those skills brought Ellis to Baton Rouge from suburban Los Angeles, where he drew a passing interest from local colleges, but not enough to generate a scholarship offer.
The son of Dwayne Ellis — a former shortstop who was drafted twice by major league teams — he found Cador through a family friend who’d attended Southern.
Ellis had a solid freshman year, followed by that gloomy ’09, when he was academically ineligible.
Since then, however, he’s been an asset.
“I don’t think a lot of people know how hard he really works. I think the team realizes it now,” Lopez said. “He and I, we work a little extra here and there on our hitting. We do extra work in the infield together. That’s really how we click together.”
Ellis is known in the dugout as a laid-back, quiet character, but Cador grinned last week as he noted a change.
Ellis will never be a vocal lightning bolt, Cador said — but lately, when the team needs a quiet, veteran voice for guidance, Ellis pipes up.
What better time? Monday night, Ellis’ parents got into town, ready to see their son play in the SWAC tournament.
This week, when Ellis drives over the Harding Boulevard overpass and sees all the empty parking lots on campus, it clicks: The spring semester is finished. No more classes. Time to really play ball.
“That first part of the season is over,” he said. “Now we’ve got to make something happen. It’s the only way to go.”
The postseason is here, and Ellis has one more chance at a ring.
From now on, it’s about business.