P IKESVILLE, Md. — One year ago, Prairie View A&M completed its rise from the abyss of college baseball by capturing the SWAC Tournament title and qualifying for the NCAA Regionals.
Prairie View will begin its title defense Wednesday, May 16 when the SWAC tournament gets under way at Smith-Wills Stadium in Jackson, Miss. But head coach Michael Robertson isn’t ready to anoint his team the favorite.
“I don’t feel that way,” he said. “But I guess we are the champs until someone beats us. Our mindset is we still have something to prove. We don’t want to be a one-year wonder.”
Over in the MEAC, the picture doesn’t seem to be quite as cloudy. Bethune-Cookman has been the dominant program in recent history, and after running the table in the MEAC last year, the Wildcats had just one conference loss this season.
Head coach Mervyl Melendez believes his team still has what it takes to repeat, and he isn’t going to look over his shoulder at who might be trying to knock his team from its pedestal.
“I just think we worry about one team, and that’s ourselves,” he said. “If we come out with the right intensity and the right mindset, we feel we can win. It’s all about the job that we can do.”
The MEAC tournament begins Thursday, May 17 at Norfolk State University. BCU draws Maryland-Eastern Shore in the first round, while Florida A&M plays the host Spartans, and Delaware State plays North Carolina A&T.
While no one is conceding the title to Bethune-Cookman, there’s little doubt that the road to the NCAAs goes through the Wildcats.
“They’ve become a little more rounded the past couple of years,” said J.P. Blandin, head coach at Delaware State . “They’ve added some size and power. They’ve got some depth on the mound. They’ve really done a lot of things to kind of polish themselves up.’
“They don’t beat themselves,” added FAMU’s Joe Durant. “You can’t make mistakes against them.” Both Florida A&M and Delaware State have shown they can be a threat in the MEAC during the latter half of the season.
Although the Hornets were swept by Bethune-Cookman to end the season, Blandin believes his team is playing some of its best baseball when it counts.
“We’ve done some things this year that have taken a lot of character,” said Blandin. “We were down 8-0 against North Carolina A&T (April 29) and came back and scored 14 runs in one inning to win the game and win the series. We’re going to make a run at this thing.”
And don’t discount FAMU. Even Melendez is wary of the Rattlers, who, after suffering a 17-4 loss to BCU in their three-game set back in March, dropped the final two games by just a combined three runs.
The Rattlers started the year 1-27 before finishing 15-7 down the stretch, including 10-3 in their final 13 MEAC games.
“We weren’t playing real well early in the season,” said Durant. “We’re going in with the idea that we’re the team to beat. We’ve been playing better as the year has gone. We won every conference series except for Bethune-Cookman.”
North Carolina A&T and Norfolk State can’t be overlooked, either. A&T, the 2005 champ, has a potent offense led by MEAC batting champ Charlie Gamble (.409, 7 HRs, 48 RBIs), C.J. Beatty (.340, 10, 34) and Jeremy Jones (.333, 6, 38).
Norfolk has a strong 1-2 pitching punch with Luke Foss (8-2, 2.52 ERA) and lefty De’Mece Williams (4-2, 4.39).
Maryland Eastern Shore will have a tough time getting past Bethune-Cookman, but the Hawks lost several one-run games this season, and could be just a break or two away from pulling a surprise.
Surprise might describe Arkansas-Pine Bluff’s presence in the SWAC tournament. The Golden Lions took two out of three from Prairie View last weekend to solidify their playoff position after several years of hard luck.
UAPB hadn’t made the SWAC tournament since 2000. The Golden Lions did qualify two years ago, or so they thought. The team got a call from the SWAC office saying it hadn’t played the required number of games and was forced to play two games against Southern, which it lost, knocking it from the tournament.
But thanks in part to its series win over PVAM, the Golden Lions are in.” We’ve been playing with a little more confidence in the second half,” said head coach Michael Bumpers. “It was almost too late, but it wasn’t too late.”
Pine Bluff qualified as the third team out of the SWAC Western Division. Robertson, however, thinks the greatest threat to his team’s title could come from the East in the form of Jackson State, Alcorn State or Mississippi Valley State .
Like PVAM, Jackson State finished 17-7 in the SWAC and has a potential SWAC player of the year candidate. Make that two. While Prairie View has Michael Richard (.407, 32 RBIs, 39 stolen bases), the Tigers have Anthony McLin (.402, 9 HR, 63 RBIs) and Chris Stamps (.400, 7 HR, 60 RBIs).
Coach Omar Johnson, however, knows it won’t be just offense that’s needed to win the tournament. “ Pitching and defense. You have to pitch well enough, and catch the ball,” he said. “The longer we have played (this season), the better we’ve gotten. But we have to play defense. That has plagued us in the past.”
Speaking of conference player of the year candidates, Alcorn State may have the frontrunner in Marcus Davis. Davis is hitting .388 with 14 homers, 54 RBIs and 27 stolen bases.
But the Braves can pitch a little, too. Joseph Gonzalez leads the team with a 7-3 record and a 3.68 ERA, while Francisco Garcia and Darryl Jordan are both 5-3.
Alcorn draws the always-dangerous Southern University in the opening round. Southern has gotten fine seasons from Calvin Anderson (.344, 6 HRs, 25 RBIs) and pitcher Roydrick Merritt (6-1, 3.09 ERA).
Mississippi Valley , led by Sean Bard (.396, 8 HR, 53 RBIs), will face Prairie View in the first round, and Jackson State will play Pine Bluff .
“I feel like it’s a wide open tournament,” said Bumpers. “On any given day, your pitcher is not on, it can be the difference in winning or losing. It will be a dogfight to the end.”
“I look for it to be a great tournament,” said Robertson.
And perhaps a bit unpredictable.