The University of South Alabama (USA) baseball team had a long but happy bus ride from Statesboro, Georgia, back home to Mobile Sunday. When the Jaguars finished classes for the day they discovered their recent success had received the attention of those who cast votes on the Collegiate Baseball national Top 30 poll. The Jags — winners of nine of their past 10 games and each of their past seven Sun Belt Conference games — are ranked No. 29 this week.
What’s more, the Jags enter the week as the top team in the Sun Belt standings. South Alabama is now 17-7 in league play with two regular-season series remaining, and have improved their overall record to 32-17. The Jags also jumped from No. 114 in the NCAA’s RPI rankings to No. 86. They have accomplished the feat by sweeping their past two three-game Sun Belt series — versus then-Sun Belt leader Georgia State and this past weekend at Georgia Southern. Georgia State is currently No. 2 in the league standings and Georgia Southern fourth.
The Jags play at No. 3 Louisiana-Lafayette Friday, Saturday and Sunday and finish the Sun Belt regular season by hosting in-state rival and Sun Belt No. 5 team Troy May 14-16 at Stanky Field.
That means the Jags, if they hold on to the No. 1 spot in the Sun Belt, will have earned that spot — and the regular-season crown that goes with it, along with the No. 1 seeding in the Sun Belt Conference tournament set May 20-24 in Troy — by taking on each of the four teams ranked behind it in its final four league series.
Head coach Mark Calvi said the team’s recent success is a result of a team playing hard all season long and having that work begin to pay off.
“These guys have been consistent all year,” Calvi said. “It’s just been a really good last two weeks. You never plan on sweeping two weekends in a row; that’s really hard to do, especially with one on the road and one at home and, at the time, against the No. 1 team and No. 2 team respectively. These kids have shown up every single day for practices and games. There have been no games we’ve lost when I doubted their effort.
“One thing we’ve done a little bit differently is, I have never liked practicing for more than two hours ever,” he continued. “This year we changed it a little. We have Monday off like most everyone in the country and usually we play on Tuesday. A lot of times, we’ve given the position players off on Wednesday; we started that about six weeks ago for the stretch run and so they will be a little fresher. Now, these guys are playing really hard, but they are fresh.”
When scoring six or more runs in a game, the Jags have produced a 17-2 record. They are also 5-2 in extra-inning games and hold an 11-1 record when they score in the first inning. In the Sun Belt, the Jags rank No. 1 in team hitting (.285 batting average), team pitching (3.33 earned run average) and team fielding (.975 fielding percentage).
Senior right-handed starting pitcher Kevin Hill is 8-0 and leads the Sun Belt in strikeouts with 78 (in 65.2 innings). He is the best in the league in opponents’ batting average (.199) and is No. 2 in ERA (2.08). He has pitched three complete games, including his past two starts — a one-hitter against Georgia State in which he struck out a career-best 15 batters and a one-run, five-hit performance against Georgia Southern in which he struck out 12.
Others contributing to the Jags’ success include Cole Billingsley, a senior outfielder-pitcher who is No. 7 in batting average (.344), tied for first in hits (67), tied for second in triples (4), first in stolen bases (23) and tied for fifth in walks. Senior infielder Bud Collura is No. 3 in hits (66), No. 4 in stolen bases (16) and tied for ninth in runs scored (38). Senior right-hander Ben Taylor, the Jags’ closer, is No. 5 in the Sun Belt in saves with six and leads a bullpen that has been strong all season.
“Our guys take care of themselves and when it’s time to go, they go super hard,” Calvi said of his players. “This has been a really good group. We have played a super-tough schedule.”
Calvi said there is still work ahead for the Jags, who must continue to play well in the coming weeks. Lafayette has a No. 53 NCAA RPI ranking, the best in the league, and the Ragin’ Cajuns are always a tough team at home. Just winning the conference’s regular-season crown won’t be enough the get the Jags in the NCAA Tournament, the ultimate goal, Calvi said. South Alabama will also have to play well in the tournament, to receive an at-large bid. Winning the Sun Belt tournament would earn the Jags an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s not like two or three guys have suddenly gotten hot. It hasn’t been anything like that,” Calvi said of the team’s recent success. “It’s just been playing steady and playing for each other. This has been a great group to be a part of. … I knew the last month (of the season) would make or break us. I really did. We did a nice job through the first six weeks (of the season). We lost a couple of games that we shouldn’t have and at the time I said those games could hurt our (NCAA Tournament) chances.
“But our guys know it. They have known it all year long and we knew that we were going to have to play really well these last few weeks of the seasons. These next couple of weeks are really big. I don’t think where we are right now (in RPI) is enough. You really need to be in that top 50. … We’ve just got to keep playing good baseball and play our best baseball in the tournament. We just need to continue what we’ve been doing and bring momentum into the tournament.”
Friday and Saturday’s games at Lafayette begin at 6 p.m., with Sunday’s game set to start at 1 p.m. All three homes games against Troy May 14-16 are set to begin at 6:30 p.m.