Southern does about-face going into SWAC tournament
Their defense was a mess, their approach at the plate abysmal. The Southern baseball team had dropped game after game, wasting a bushel’s worth of quality innings from a strong pitching staff. Roger Cador was out of patience.
Oh, his Jaguars had potential. They just weren’t winning, and that frustrated the old coach, who’s still thirsting for his 15th Southwestern Athletic Conference title in 28 seasons.
So, after one practice in mid-March, during a stretch in which Southern dropped eight of nine games, Cador ripped into his guys, going up one side and down the other.
Why couldn’t they concentrate? Why did they make the same mistakes? When were they going to get it together?
Shortly thereafter, catcher Clint Ourso and left fielder Taylor Roy — two team leaders, two seniors who transferred to SU for a chance to win a championship — came to Cador with a directive.
In so many words, they said:
Ease up, coach. The glass is half-full. We’re working hard. We’ll keep working hard, and we’ll turn it around.
Cador backed off. And the team took off.
“I wasn’t enraged, but I was pretty upset,” Cador said. “These guys came to me with some honey and sugar, and the way I heard it, it tasted really good.”
Fast-forward to this week. Cador and Southern enter the SWAC tournament on a mighty tear, having ridden a 16-game winning streak en route to the Western Division title. If they’re not the overwhelming favorite to win it, they’re not far off.
At 3 p.m. Wednesday, in the comforts of their very own ballpark, the Jaguars (31-14) host Mississippi Valley State (14-38) in the first round of the double-elimination tournament at Lee-Hines Field.
Junior left-hander Jesse Holiday (7-3), the team’s No. 1 weekend starter, will take the mound Wednesday.
The Jaguars will face Valley right-hander Kameron Stady (2-9).
Tuesday morning, as each team squeezed in practice and tournament organizers prepped the grass and dirt at Lee-Hines Field, Cador was inside his office at the F.G. Clark Activity Center. He smiled, discussing why, after all these years, he still gets a kick out of his job.
Each team is different. Those early-’80s teams were hard-nosed, old-fashioned. That 2003 team, with Rickie Weeks and a host of talented players, was a once-in-a-lifetime ballclub.
Then there’s this bunch.
“Every time you go, it’s a different group of kids. They all become special,” Cador said. “This one here is special, simply because of the road that they had to travel.”
Together, their mission is deceptively simple: keep doing what they’ve done for the past two months. Play solid defense, work the count, get runners on base and bring them home.
“We’ve been doing what we have to do,” said right-hander Jose De Leon, part of a pitching staff that has a SWAC-best 3.81 ERA.
“I’m pretty positive that everybody will do what they have to do, and we’ll have a good tournament.”
It seems like an easy task — unless they start to daydream, and forget to focus.
“The mental approach is still the same,” said assistant coach Fernando Puebla, who played on some of Southern’s greatest teams in the early 2000s.
“You want to show people that 16 wins in a row was not a fluke. You want to come out and prove it.
“I played on those (vintage) teams. I played in these situations, and I’m telling them these same things: This is a greater opportunity for you to display your skills. Don’t try to do too much.”
With a win in their first game, the Jaguars would move on to face one of two old nemeses in Alcorn State or Grambling, who play the tournament opener at 9 a.m. Wednesday.
Grambling, of course, is the archrival.
Led by 31-year-old coach James Cooper, the Tigers swept Southern in a three-game series at Lee-Hines Field two months ago, during that ugly midseason slide.
Alcorn, of course, is coached by Barret Rey — the former SU pitcher and assistant coach, who, as Grambling’s coach in 2009, nearly squashed the Jaguars at Lee-Hines Field (Southern rallied from eight runs down to tie the score and win a 12-inning elimination game, then advanced to claim their most recent championship).
Rey and Alcorn have eliminated Southern in each of the past two seasons, however. Last spring, on a hot afternoon in Shreveport, the Braves got an early jump on De Leon and won the championship game, 12-6.
Now, again, a berth in the NCAA regionals is on the line — and sure, the Jaguars might have finished the regular season on a 16-game winning streak.
But it won’t mean anything at 3 p.m. Wednesday, when Holiday fires that first pitch against Mississippi Valley State.
“I have to feel that the kids are in the right place, mentally, based upon what they’ve done,” Cador said.
“We’re getting to the biggest part of the year. I wouldn’t think that they’d take anything less than 100-percent serious.”
Their goal, of course, is to win the SWAC championship.
It would be better than honey, better than sugar.
For the Jaguars, it would be very, very sweet.