Before I get to my couple of hours at the SWAC tournament, here’s my weekend preview for ESPN, which focuses on the “It’s Now or Never” teams. Click your mouse here.
I have a new favorite player in college baseball: Desmond Russell of Jackson State.
I got a chance to swing by the SWAC tournament in New Orleans today and saw J-State down Arkansas-Pine Bluff 7-1. Russell was the star of the show, throwing a complete-game five-hitter and also knocking in two RBI to help pace the 11-hit attack for the Tigers.
But it was Russell’s demeanor, pace and no-fear attack mode on the mound that I loved. He was no-nonsense, no-wasted-motions kind of guy. He would get the ball from catcher Jose Cruz and be ready to pitch so fast there were times when I wondered if the home plate umpire was even ready. As a fan, you’ve GOT to love that.
Russell also hit second in the Jackson State batting order and fielded the ball well from his position on the mound as UAPB laid down a couple of bunts and had a comebacker or two for him to make plays on.
I was talking with Prairie View A&M head coach Waskyla Cullivan during the game and he told me, “That guy is the reason Jackson State is so dangerous,” he said, while pointing at Russell.
“Man, he’s a senior and I’m going to be glad when he’s gone next year.”
Coach Cullivan also told me that Russell is a 26-year old senior with a wife and kid at home as well. Russell is a fun guy to watch and appreciate from the stands.
Oh, on a side note, Coach Cullivan had some interesting comments about his program as well, including the fact that Prairie View’s administrators built the Panther baseball program a whole new field with new dugouts and brick backstop just prior to this season.
The remainder of the project will be completed before next season with a covered grandstand, a press box and new concession stand and bathrooms. Here’s an artist’s rendition of what it will look like when it’s done.
Coach Cullivan also told me the hiring of new coaches and the money that is starting to be put into programs all around the SWAC have made a huge difference in the quality of play from across the conference.
Unfortunately, the Prairie View team, just two years removed from making the NCAA Tournament, didn’t have quite the season they wanted to have, finishing 19-29 in the regular season and 11-12 in the SWAC. Cullivan said this year’s team just didn’t seem to gel together.
“It was a team of individuals,” Cullivan said. “We have talented guys but they just haven’t played together. In fact, I’ve had less talented teams win more in the past just by playing for each other and not for themselves.”
The Panthers lost their opening round game to Alabama A&M 11-5. By the way, another stunning fact about this year’s SWAC tourney, no Southern in the field of eight. The Jaguars finished dead last in the Western Division at 6-16 and 10-26 overall. That’s something you don’t expect to see out of a Roger Cador-coached team.
WHAT I SAW AT THE URBAN YOUTH ACADEMY IN NEW ORLEANS
I only had a couple hours to spend but after I landed at Louis Armstrong International Airport (cool, an airport named after one of the greatest musicians of all time), I made my way to the Urban Youth Academy near UNO and got to see most of Jackson State’s 7-1 grinder over Arkansas-Pine Bluff.
Jackson State – 000 103 120 – 7 11 2
Ark-Pine Bluff – 000 000 010 – 1 5 1
WP: Desmond Russell, 8-4
LP: Mikey Ramirez, 6-5
- Bryce Taylor, 2-for-4, 2RBI
- Desmond Russell, 1-for-4, HR, 2RBI
- Tilur Smith, 2-for-5
- Vladimir Gomez, 1-for-3
- Jax State, 28-23
- UA-PB, 22-27
IN A NUTSHELL:
Russell Desmond was one nasty warlock on the mound and also added a sonic boom of a home run in the 6th inning to pace the Tigers to a first round “upset” of UA-Pine Bluff. And I put upset in quotes because the Tigers came into the SWAC tournament as the 4th place team in the East, finishing the conference season with a 9-15 mark, and the Lions won the Western Division pennant with a 16-7 record.
But as you might’ve seen over the years, the SWAC tournament is crazy. It never goes as planned or according to seeding. So give the Tigers as good of a punchers’ chance as anyone here.
The two pitchers put up a pretty steady diet of zeroes through the first few innings before Jax State broke through with a run in the 4th inning. Bryce Taylor, the six-hole hitter for JSU, knocked in Melvin Rodriguez with a two-out single to get things started.
But the crusher came two innings later when Desmond, batting in the two-slot in the JSU order, sent an absolute rocket over the left field wall to start the inning off. It was one of those home runs that seemed to be rising even as it went over the fence.
Later in the inning, the Tigers added a couple of insurance runs as Bryce Taylor laced an RBI single through the right side, scoring Tilur Smith. Then JSU pulled off a double steal which allowed Jose Cruz to steal home from 3rd as Taylor slid into 2nd.
From there Desmond Russell just kept pounding the zone – as they say. He allowed just three hits and one unearned run the rest of the way. The key moment came in the 5th inning when the Lions looked to have something brewing with men on 1st and 3rd and the Lion bench becoming vocal. But Russell quelled the uprising with a bucket of water as he induced Lion catcher Mike Wieland to ground into a rally-killing double play.
A few more images from the J-State win.