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Jackson State enters SWAC tournament seeking NCAA berth

MEAC winner also hopes to get chance at trying to reach the College World Series

Jackson State piled up a king’s ransom of honors in college baseball this season, including finishing with the best record (36-15-1) among historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and winning the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

The Tigers placed four players on the All-SWAC first team, including third baseman Jesus Santana, who ranks No. 7 in the nation in RBIs per game and fourth in total RBIs. Santana leads the SWAC in RBIs and home runs.

Outfielder Lamar Briggs ranks 49th in the nation in batting average and ninth in hits. He is second in the SWAC in batting average and hits. The first team also includes outfielder Bryce Brown and pitcher Miguel Yrigoyen, while outfielder C.J. Newsome was named to the second team.

The honors and accolades will look nice in trophy cases and in media archives for years to come, but the biggest prize is still ahead.

Jackson State must win the SWAC tournament, which started Wednesday in New Orleans, if it wants to advance to the NCAA tournament, where the Tigers could play for a chance to reach the College World Series.

All-SWAC baseball team

“You play for 14 weeks to have one week decide your fate,” Jackson State coach Omar Johnson said this week. “It’s kind of tough, but that’s the way baseball is played.

“A lot of times it’s not the best team that wins the tournament,” Johnson added. “It’s the team that’s playing the best at the time.”

Both Jackson State and Alabama State enter tournament play with 9-1 records in their last 10 SWAC games.

No. 1 East seed Jackson State opened double-elimination play with a 4-2 victory Wednesday against No. 4 West seed Southern in Game 3 of the tournament.

No. 2 West seed Texas Southern topped No. 3 East seed Alabama A&M 7-4 in Game 1.

No. 2 East seed and defending champ Alabama State defeated No. 3 West seed Prairie View 13-5 in Game 2.

In the day’s finale, No. 1 West seed Grambling State fell to No. 4 East seed Alcorn State 7-6 in 11 innings.

The SWAC tournament championship game will be televised Sunday at noon EST on ESPNU.

The Tigers solidified their grip on the East Division in mid-April with a three-game sweep of Alabama State in Montgomery, Alabama. In early March, the Tigers lost in two games in a three-game homestand against the Hornets.

Now the Hornets figure to be the biggest hurdle for the Tigers, who are seeking to win their first SWAC title since winning back-to-back in 2013 and 2014.

“The two things we’re going to have to do is … pitch the way we’ve been pitching all year, and we’re going to have to play defense,” Johnson said.

“This team is built to score runs in many different ways,” he added. “We’ve got a couple guys in the middle of the lineup that’s going to drive the ball. And we’ve got some guys at the top and the bottom that’s going to get on base and steal some bases and move the ball.

“So, it’s built for close games and to take advantage of some situations if the pitchers miss.”

Biggs, the first-team All-SWAC outfielder, said it’s difficult to celebrate his selection with the tournament ahead.

“It’s an honor, and a great accomplishment, but it’s not the end,” Briggs said. “I can’t really sit there and get too excited about it; we still have a tournament to play, a lot of postseason left.

Jesus Santana, the first-team All-SWAC third baseman, said the key for the Tigers is to “play hard all the time because everyone wants to win it.”

“It don’t matter if you ended up first or last — everybody’s got a chance to win it,” said Santana, a senior making his last rounds with the Tigers.

“It’s been a long journey, but I like it. It’s been a good group of people, pretty much all the same since freshman year. I’m just happy to be with this team and this coaching staff.

He said the team is not anxious going into the tournament, but they’re confident.

“We’ve been playing this game a long time,” Santana added. “We’re going to be doing what we love and giving our all, like every game is the last game.”

Briggs said the team has primed itself for the tournament with a pregame ritual.

“We’ve started this thing, ‘Why not us?’ ” Briggs said. “If anybody’s going to win the tournament, why not us?”

MEAC tournament underway too

Norfolk State, the class of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference this season, also finds itself playing for its postseason life. The MEAC baseball tournament opened Wednesday in Salisbury, Maryland.

The No. 1 North seed Spartans are in action at 3:30 p.m. Thursday against No. 2 South seed North Carolina A&T, which won 8-0 in its tournament opener over No. 3 North seed Maryland Eastern Shore.

No. 1 South seed and defending champion Bethune-Cookman takes the field at noon Thursday against No. 3 South seed Florida A&M, which won 12-2 Wednesday against No. 2 North seed Delaware State.

All-MEAC baseball team

In Wednesday’s final MEAC game, Delaware State eliminated Eastern Shore 6-5 in a loser’s bracket matchup.

The Spartans are led by the school’s first MEAC Player of the Year, Alex Mauricio, as well as Pitcher of the Year Devin Hemmerich. They were among five NSU players on the All-MEAC Team.

Outfielder Brian Beard was also voted to the first team, while pitcher Chase Anderson was selected to the second team and junior Justin Burrell was a third-team selection. Mauricio, one of nine semifinalists for the John Olerud National Two-Way Player of the Year Award, is the MEAC leader in slugging percentage (.573) and second in batting average (.374).

Mauricio (4-3, 3.28 ERA) had 55 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings pitched.

Norfolk State coach Claudell Clark said the tournament presents “a lot of pressure on all teams.”

“Teams like ours, it’s pressure to try to finish your job,” he said. “Luckily and fortunately, we have some pretty good players. I feel like we are hot at the right time and kind of locked in. So, I do like our chances.”

Of the challengers vying for the postseason crown, Claude said, “B-CC [Bethune Cookman] would be the most formidable, but I think it can be any team on any given day.”

Clark is happy with a great regular season, but the Spartans are looking to do more with his team and with his staff.

“Anytime you have the Player of the Year and the Pitcher of the Year, it’s a credit to your assistant coaches and the jobs they do,” Clark said.

“Going into a short tournament like this, it’s great to have two of the best players in the conference.”

The teams that win both tournaments will know their NCAA postseason fates on May 29, when the playoff brackets are announced.

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.