STARKVILLE — The Jackson State baseball team’s journey to a second-straight NCAA tournament regional includes a bus trip it would like to forget.
While coming home from a game against Savannah State on May 5, the team’s bus caught fire. While no individuals were harmed in the incident, the team lost all of its equipment in the blaze.
Weeks later, fourth-seeded JSU (31-23) will play No. 1 and top-seeded Louisiana-Lafayette (53-7) at 6 tonight in the Lafayette Regional. Second-seeded Mississippi State and third-seeded San Diego State will play at 1 p.m. in the first game.
“We drove by the stadium tonight and saw people are already tailgating, and we’re excited to be part of this atmosphere,” said Jackson State coach Omar Johnson, whose team won the Southwest Athletic Conference tournament to earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. “However, we come here knowing if we play our best baseball we can win. We’re not just happy to be here. We intend to give these power programs the hardest nine innings they’ve had all season.”
Days after the bus fire, staffs at Mississippi State and Ole Miss boxed up and shipped donated equipment to JSU.
“That was something that was organized by people like our president Mark Keenum, athletic director Scott Stricklin, and folks in our volunteers (and) our staff like Greg Drye,” MSU baseball coach John Cohen said. “Nobody is looking for a pat on the back for that because that’s something we in Mississippi must do no matter if it’s a fire or a tornado like you saw earlier this year. It’s a Mississippi thing.”
However, JSU was determined to find ways to wear equipment that had their team colors and logos on it to complete the season, so it’s not likely fans will see JSU suit up in what MSU donated to it earlier this month.
“We truly appreciate the equipment sent to us by MSU and Ole Miss, but their stuff was maroon and white, red and blue, so we can’t use those things,” Johnson said.
Not long after the donated equipment was sent, JSU received shipments of equipment from Rawlings and shoes from Nike that they’ve been using for the past month.
“Our administration has done a wonderful job getting us want we need after an unfortunate incident,” Johnson said. “Our kids have more than made the best of the situation by getting in a regional.”
Johnson said in a phone interview with The Dispatch he doesn’t want his team to be categorized as a charity case. Despite the circumstances, Jackson State’s upset SWAC regular-season champion Alabama State in the conference tournament final to earn a trip to Louisiana.
“We’re a club that went into the bottom of the sixth inning at Alabama with a 1-0 lead, so being competitive against some of the nation’s best programs isn’t good enough,” Johnson said. “We’re used to that. We have to figure out a way to finish off some of those good efforts with wins. Do we know Louisiana-Lafayette is probably a once-in-a-lifetime type team? Yes. But this is baseball where anything can happen over nine innings, too.”
Jackson State will ride the talents of Desmond Russell, who pitched five innings against Alabama State in the SWAC tournament final to earn the victory. He also went 2-for-4, scored a run, and drove in another. Today, the right-hander will get the start against one of the nation’s most dangerous lineups. Russell was 9-4, 3.50 with eight complete games and two saves in 16 appearances (12 starts) this season. He is hitting .289 as the starting right fielder and No. 2 hitter in the lineup.
Despite having one of the lowest Ratings Percentage Index figures in the NCAA tournament, Johnson feels his team’s non-conference schedule early in the season and its mid-week games prepared it for this moment.
“We’ve played in LSU’s tournament where there was 15,000 people in the stands this season,” Johnson said. “That’s why we play SEC schools in mid-week to get our team prepared for the environment, and we’ve got seniors in our program that will not take a back seat to anybody. We’re here to win.”
Follow Matt Stevens on Twitter @matthewcstevens.