More than a year ago, when Jacksonville State’s new baseball stadium wasn’t half finished, head coach Jim Case said he thought the new digs would help the Gamecocks achieve even more between the lines.
Case was giving a tour of the facility to reporters, and it still had a ways to go. There was enough of a skeleton in place, however, that you could kind of picture what Case was describing. You didn’t even have to squint.
If everything panned out with construction as Case was hoping (and it did), Jacksonville State baseball had a higher ceiling than ever before.
Even so, it happened more quickly than I thought it would. JSU debuted the new place — officially called Rudy Abbott Field at Jim Case Stadium — this past fall with a formal ceremony and a couple of exhibition games. The first real game didn’t come until February.
The Gamecocks then roared through this season to their first Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championship since 2008.
This past weekend, JSU traveled to Austin Peay for a three-game set. The two teams were tied for first place in the league, and whichever team won the series would win the championship.
JSU dominated. The Gamecocks won a one-run game on the first night, then hammered the Govs by nine runs in the second game. Just when you thought they’d spend the Sunday game too tired from the excitement of clinching first place, they won that one, too, 13-8.
It’s a much-deserved crown for a group of players, coaches and staff members who enjoyed seeing so many more people in the stands and wanted to make sure those folks were paying to watch a good baseball team. It really did matter to them.
By my unofficial count, the average attendance this year was 960. In the last year in the previous on-campus stadium, JSU averaged 377 in 2016. That’s about 39 percent of this season’s figure.
In interviews throughout the the season, players mentioned regularly how it motivated them to see their park fill with more fans that other teams drew.
So, those 960 fans a game deserve a small assist to JSU’s championship season.
Still, this is a good team that has a solid batting order from top to bottom. The starting pitching is top-notch, and JSU has an outstanding bullpen. The Gamecocks would’ve had a good year even if they had been forced to play in the basketball parking lot.
That bit of information about this being the first regular-season championship since 2008 probably does a disservice to these guys. It might make it seem as if JSU built a fancy new stadium and its Cinderella baseball team responded by coming out of nowhere to finish first.
That’s not a fair impression. If you think of it that way, then I’m probably to blame for it as much as anyone, as I’ve written that 2008 factoid regularly. It’s just that the OVC is a tough baseball league, and winning it is an important accomplishment — even for a program like JSU’s that has shined for decades. Our readers who like Jacksonville State sports should know how hard it is to do.
The Gamecocks have won either the regular season or the tournament in seven of its 16 baseball seasons in the OVC. After winning the regular season in 2008, JSU has put up six top-three finishes, including this year’s championship.
What’s good to see is how much the players, coaches and staff appreciate winning this title. In a league like the OVC, which often gets only one NCAA bid, it’s hard to blame anyone for focusing on the postseason tournament. The team that wins it goes to the NCAA tournament.
But, Case has emphasized for weeks now that winning a regular-season championship means plenty, because to do it, you have to be good over an extended period of time.
JSU will open OVC tournament play Thursday, with a chance to do something Case’s team has never done — win the regular season and the tourney in the same year.
Don’t sell the Gamecocks short. This group really is good at finding ways to win.
Also, that won’t stop when the season ends. With that new stadium and the solid base Case and his staff have built already, it seems unlikely JSU will have to wait another 11 years for a regular-season crown.