JACKSONVILLE — On a scale of 1-10, how excited is Jacksonville State coach Jim Case about the Gamecocks’ season starting Friday?
The 60-year-old Case laughed at the question, answering, “Man, it’d be terrible if you said 10 when you’re as old as I am.”
“I don’t think it changes,” he added. “For me, you almost feel like that little boy again. You’re waiting for spring training to get over and for opening day to come, and everybody is playing on that afternoon. That’s kind of how I feel right now.”
His players say they feel the same as defending Ohio Valley Conference champion JSU prepares to open its season this weekend against Missouri with a game Friday at 3 p.m., Saturday at 3 p.m. and Sunday at noon.
“I’m ready to get rolling,” senior relief pitcher Corley Woods said.
Asked the same question about measuring his excitement on a scale of 1-10, senior center fielder Tre Kirklin smiled and said, “Twenty. I’m very excited. The intersquad (games) are fun and all, but we’re ready to get out there against another team.”
It almost doesn’t matter who the team is. Missouri is a Southeastern Conference team, but Case said that at this point in the season, he’s worried about seeing where his own team is at.
“This sounds terrible, but I’ve thought very little about them,” Case said. “We’ve looked at some stuff from last year, but I’m much more concerned with us than I am with them. I’ll probably be that way for the most part for the preseason. The biggest thing for me is to try to find a way by the time we open up conference play for us to have a feeling of, ‘OK, this is who we are.’”
Case said he plans to pitch left-handed junior Dylan Hathcock (3-0, 4.02 in 2019) Friday, right-handed sophomore Isaiah Magwood (3-1, 4.85) on Saturday, and left-handed sophomore Michael Gilliland (3-1, 6.23) on Sunday. Magwood is a preseason All-OVC pick.
In the field, Case said that if nothing unusual happens, he likely will go with senior Alex Webb at catcher, senior Andrew Naismith at first base, junior Javier Ramirez at second base, junior Isaac Alexander at shortstop, junior Cole Frederick at third base, sophomore Nash Adams in left field, senior Tre Kirklin in center field and sophomore Carson Crowe in right field.
Everybody in that lineup started at least 36 games last year, except Ramirez, a transfer from Taft College in Taft, Calif. Webb, Alexander, Frederick and Kirklin each started at least 50 games. Alexander, Frederick and Naismith were starters in 2018.
All that experience is part of why JSU is a runaway choice by the league’s coaches and sports information directors to win the OVC championship again this year.
“Two years ago, our lineup was kind of like putting money in the bank — one day we would be able to make a withdrawal,” Case said. “Now is a time when we should be able to make some withdrawals.”
That championship season in 2019 has given the current players a base of confidence. If nothing else, they played in plenty of meaningful games. They not only won the regular-season championship but the OVC tournament as well. They reached the finals of their regional in the NCAA tournament.
“I think everybody’s got in mind what this team can do,” Woods said. “We know last year’s team isn’t this year’s team, but we saw what we could do last year, and we want that again, if not better.”
Still, for Case and the team, the mindset Friday is it’s good to play a game that counts.
“I feel like we’ve had a good spring,” he said. “The guys have worked hard. Not for a moment do I feel we’re where we need to be, but I think it’s time for us to play somebody else. I’m excited about it.”