By David Brandt/The Associated Press
JACKSON — Jackson State has waited years for another chance to prove it can compete with the nation’s best baseball teams in the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers will get it in their first trip to the postseason since 2000. No. 4 national seed LSU (52-9) — and its home crowd of 10,000-plus fans at Alex Box Stadium — will be waiting when Jackson State (34-20) takes the field at the double-elimination Baton Rouge regional on Friday.
But after years of frustration just trying to make the NCAA tournament, the opportunity to knock off one of college baseball’s most storied programs is something catcher Jose Cruz relishes.
“At the end of the day, it’s baseball,” Cruz said. “LSU has to come and play us, too. We’re going to play hard enough that we can give them some competition. It’s going to be pretty tough. They’re one of the best teams in the country. They have a big advantage because they have all those fans. But to be the best you’ve got to beat the best.”
Jackson State’s trip to the NCAA tournament comes after several years of unhappy endings at the SWAC tournament.
The Tigers have dominated the league in the regular season, earning the No. 1 seed in the SWAC tournament during five of the past seven seasons. But the reality of playing in a one-bid league is regular season play doesn’t matter except for seeding. Only the conference tournament winner goes to the NCAA tournament.
Each year, the agonizing losses piled higher.
But the Tigers finally broke through this season, winning four straight games to claim the title. They played well in almost phase during the dominant run, beating opponents by a combined score of 29-11.
Seventh-year coach Omar Johnson said he’s had better teams, but this one has continually improved and plays well in big moments.
“It’s a group that picks each other up,” Johnson said. “You try to teach that, but ultimately the players have to do it. We’ve had a lot of injuries, and it always seems like we’re facing some sort of adversity. But every time we could have packed it in, somebody steps up.”
And now the Tigers are starting to get healthy. Desmond Russell — who was the SWAC’s preseason pitcher of the year — returned a few weeks ago after missing about two months with a knee injury.
The 5-foot-8, 170-pound junior from the Bahamas looks unassuming, but he has 43 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings this season and earned three saves during the team’s run through the SWAC tournament.
Russell could be used as in a starting or relief role in Baton Rouge. He’s just happy to be back on the mound.
“It feels great to come back and be able to help,” Russell said. “My teammates were behind me the whole time. You don’t get this opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament very often and I just wanted to be able to do something. Just watching was terrible.”
Jackson State has an 0-8 record all-time in the NCAA tournament, but hopes a combination of good pitching and speed on the base paths can make good things happen in Baton Rouge. The Tigers have stolen 125 bases this season and six regulars have stolen at least 12 bases.
“The environment shouldn’t affect us very much,” Johnson said. “We’ve played big schools before. We’ve just got to play well — that’s the bottom line. If we can pitch well and play some defense then we’ll have a chance. You can’t make mistakes against a team like LSU and expect to hang around very long.”
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