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Batter up for Alabama State, Bethune-Cookman in NCAA Division I Baseball Championship

Victories are few but black college teams don’t plan on just being roadkill

Alabama State and Bethune-Cookman will bring stellar campaigns and lots of winning to the field when the NCAA Division I Baseball Championship gets underway Friday for 64 teams at eight ballparks across the United States.

But the biggest question both teams face is this: Can they deliver a victory against the big boys of college baseball?

Bethune-Cookman (29-25), an 18-time Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) champion, brings a six-game winning streak into its 6 p.m. matchup with No. 1-seeded regional host Florida in Gainesville, Florida. The game will be televised live on the SEC Network.

Alabama State (38-15), the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) champion, will head to Tallahassee, Florida, to take on regional host Florida State in the Hornets’ first appearance in the postseason tournament. First pitch is set 6 p.m., and the game will be televised by ESPN3.

The Hornets are on a seven-game winning streak and dominated the SWAC with a 28-0 record, including four wins in the SWAC tournament. They are led by three-time SWAC Starting Pitcher of the Year Joseph Camacho and SWAC Hitter and Player of the Year Carlos Ocasio.

SWAC Coach of the Year Mervyl Melendez made 11 appearances as head coach of the Bethune-Cookman program before joining Alabama State five years ago.

The Wildcats are led by freshman first baseman Danny Rodriguez , the MEAC Rookie of the Year and Outstanding Performer of the MEAC tournament, who was second in the MEAC with 46 RBIs and tied for second with 10 home runs.

But victories in the NCAA tournament have been slim for historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).

Bethune-Cookman beat Columbia in the 2014 tournament and Florida International in 2002. Those are the only wins on record at the MEAC offices.

Traditional SWAC power Southern University beat four opponents: No. 2-ranked Cal State Fullerton in 1987, Austin Peay in 1996, Louisiana-Monroe in 1999 and the University of Southern Mississippi in 2003, according Jaguars coach Roger Cador, who has coached at Southern for 30 years.

Jackson State beat Louisiana-Lafayette, the No. 1-ranked team in 2014, in what is considered one of the biggest upsets in NCAA baseball history. Texas Southern beat Rice in 2004 to pick up another victory.

Plus, there have been other games that were lost late with some questionable umpiring, some observers say.

While this feels like an annual David vs. Goliath matchups, David is faring better on the HBCU baseball landscape than he is faring in football and basketball, where black college teams are reduced to roadkill in revenue-generating contests that help the schools’ athletic departments make budget.

Cador explained why the baseball teams have a boxer’s chance on the baseball diamond.

“In football and basketball, they can physically wear you down,” he said. “In baseball, they can’t wear you down physically.”

Plus, timely hitting and solid pitching help level the playing field.

“If you are decent in baseball,” Cador said, “you have a chance to win.”

In 2011, Melendez’s Wildcats lost to Florida State in an NCAA regional, after the Seminoles staged a late-game rally.

Florida State beat Melendez’s Hornets 8-7 in a 2015 regular-season game.

A Seminoles-Wildcats or Seminoles-Hornets football game would have been decided in the first quarter.

Still, Melendez and Bethune-Cookman coach Jason Beverlin are not looking for moral victories this weekend.

“Traditionally, we have played very well against them,” Melendez said of Florida State, “but we don’t want to just play well. We want to win.”

David Squires is an educator and digital journalist who lives in the Charlotte area and teaches journalism at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro. He has covered HBCU sports for several decades, first with the St. Petersburg Times and later as editor-in-chief of the original BlackVoices.com and BVQ magazine. He has also worked in news and sports in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Fort Worth and Hampton Roads. His passion is college basketball, and he is a die-hard Tar Heel -- born and bred.