There aren’t two more teams in the field for which the second season carries so much potential for redemption.
Neither team had the season they would have liked, but they collide tonight at 7 p.m. in Pringles Park for the first step to making a lot of things right.
“Both teams are very hungry; they’re ready to play to their potential,” JSU senior outfielder Scott Underwood said. “I can’t speak for them, but I know we did a good job coming into the conference ready to play to our potential — and we did.
“But we can’t look back and say I wish we had played better throughout the whole season — of course we wish we did — but it’s all about the moment right now and in the moment we’re a good team.”
But it took a while to get there — for both teams.
The Gamecocks were picked to finish second in the preseason OVC poll. They have some of the best individual talent in the league. Yet, they started the year 2-14 and wound up 26-28. It was their first losing regular season since 2002 — coach Jim Case’s first with the program.
“I think hands down we’re the hungriest team in the tournament,” senior first baseman Ben Waldrip said. “Aside from talent and everything, I think we want it more than any other team in the conference.”
SEMO, and maybe No. 2 seed Eastern Kentucky, might have something to say about that. The Redhawks have the best player in the league, two-time Player of the Year Trenton Moses. They had a player with one of the longest hitting streaks in the history of the college game, and another who kept another long hitting streak going after that one came to an end.
But they were 8-24 out of the gate, losing 10 in a row and 16 of 18 at one point, and barely made it into the conference tournament. Their 21-34 record marks their first losing regular season since 2008 and the fewest regular season wins since 2006.
But, as Underwood suggested, it’s all about what’s ahead now.
“When it comes this time of year, honestly, you wipe the slate clean; you say we want to play the way we can play,” Case said. “The thing SEMO has going for it is they were down and out early and they played dynamite late. I’m sure the team we saw and the confidence they showed at that time we’re gonna see a little bit different team. They’ve earned the right to feel more confident the way they’ve played.
“I think we’ll go into it with some confidence as well, but for the most part, most teams would say it’s a clean slate. If you can find a way to win that first game, and win the second game, you kind of put yourself back in line with everybody else.”
SEMO coach Mark Hogan sees things the same way.
“We get a clean slate,” he said. “If we play like we have been most of the last few weeks then I think we’ve got a shot.”
The Gamecocks are scheduled to send regular Game 1 starter Aaron Elias (2-8, 3.82) to the mound. The senior right-hander has lost his last five straight decisions, including a 5-3 decision to SEMO on May 4, but if he were so inclined he could make a case for non-support.
The Gamecocks have scored a total of 18 runs in those five decisions, but eight runs came last week against Eastern Illinois. Elias has done his part. In the three prior starts he gave up one earned run each game.
“I don’t feel good about the number of wins we have on Friday night, but the pitching we got on Friday has been outstanding,” Case said.
The Redhawks are expected to counter with freshman left-hander Will Spitzfaden (2-2, 6.34) as junior ace Shae Simmons (6-4, 4.74) is said to need another day’s rest.
The Gamecocks came back from the May 4 loss to win two one-run games to take the series.
In fact, they have won the season series from each of the other five teams in the tournament.
Al Muskewitz covers Jacksonville State sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.