Promoted to head coach of the Prairie View baseball team four years ago, Waskyla Cullivan struggled early on.
During his first two years in charge, the Panthers missed the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament, finishing last in the Western Division after winning back-to-back titles in 2007 and ’08. Fans had to wonder how long Cullivan might last.
“There was a transitional period for me,” he said.
Evan Richard, a catcher from Sugar Land, Texas, with a good bat and leadership skills, came to Prairie View with one goal in mind: to win the SWAC championship. After three seasons, he was ringless.
On a steamy, sweat-soaked Sunday afternoon at Lee-Hines Field, after the Panthers held off Mississippi Valley State for a 7-4 victory in the championship game of the conference tournament, Cullivan and Richard shared a congratulatory hug. Along with some very important hardware.
Cullivan, a former center fielder at Southern, accepted an elusive trophy — one that goes to the SWAC coach of the year.
Richard received his own honor as the tournament’s MVP.
Together, they shared a giant trophy made of wood and metal pieces that goes to the tournament champion. In winning this five-day event on Southern’s campus, the Panthers earned an automatic berth in the NCAA regionals for the first time since ’08 — the year before Cullivan took over, the year before Richard began at Prairie View.
“We worked so hard all year to win this one game,” Richard said. “We got it. It’s unbelievable. I’m speechless. I’m just speechless.”
Sunday afternoon, the Panthers took an early 3-0 lead on upstart Valley (17-39), a team that surprised everyone by reaching the title game after three straight wins — including two against Southern, the home team and Western Division champion.
Prairie View (28-23), the No. 2 West seed, got its first two runners aboard in the third inning. They scored on a two-run single by Brett Valley, who later came home on an RBI double by Dominiq Harris.
Meanwhile, right-hander Derrick Mitchell — the Panthers’ No. 1 starter, working on three days’ rest — kept getting out of trouble. The Delta Devils stranded eight runners over the first five innings and 12 for the game.
“To win this (tournament), you’ve got to throw your ace first, and you’ve got to bring him back on short rest,” Cullivan said. “So that was the plan, and Derrick Mitchell knew this the whole time — that he was going to have to come back on Sunday.”
Mitchell (6-4) held Mississippi Valley scoreless until the bottom of the sixth, when he loaded the bases and walked in a run with one out.
From there, Cullivan turned to Daniel Castillo, a bearded, long-haired sidearm reliever with a weather-beaten cap, who leads the team with six saves and hasn’t lost a decision in two years at PV.
“The team loves him,” Cullivan said. “We expect to win every time he takes the ball. Daniel did that today. He was excited. He wanted the ball today, and I said, ‘You’re going to get the ball, son.’ He pulled it out for us.”
Castillo got a double play to end the sixth, and his teammates added one run in the seventh to take a 4-1 lead.
One inning later, a crushing one-out error by Valley third baseman Seth Milliorn helped lead to a three-run inning for Prairie View, giving the Panthers a 7-1 lead. Those runs turned out to be useful.
The Devils rallied for three runs with two outs in the bottom of the eighth against Castillo, and they had the tying run at the plate.
But Allen Cheek hit a fly ball into left field that disappeared into Darryl Johnson’s glove, ending the threat.
Castillo pitched a 1-2-3 ninth, prompting a wild explosion of gloves and caps as players dogpiled near the mound.
That the Panthers prevailed was a testament to strong leadership and perseverance. They opened this season with three straight losses against SWAC opponents at the MLB Urban Invitational in Houston. They rebounded to lead the Western Division for much of the regular season before Southern overtook them down the stretch.
Prairie View then lost its third game in the SWAC tournament to archrival Texas Southern — a team led by Michael Robertson, who coached the Panthers to those two conference titles in ’07 and ’08.
The Panthers bounced back by eliminating TSU on Saturday, advancing to the championship game.
Once they got there, they made sure they won it.
“This is lovely. Lovely,” Cullivan said. “Very excited. Just looking forward to the regionals.”
For the record, when the NCAA announces regional sites and pairings next week, Cullivan hopes to stay within the state of Texas.
His team has traveled a long-enough road already.