Alcorn State home of the brave
Braves tough schedule has them ready for first regional
The old saying goes, “what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” That quote had to pop into Alcorn State head coach Barrett Rey’s mind when he was putting together the Braves’ schedule this season.
If you take a look at the non-conference schedule Alcorn State endured this season, it reads like a who’s who of college baseball: Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi State, LSU, Wichita State, Louisiana-Lafayette, and Southern Miss. Even Division I independent Dallas Baptist boasts a 39-17 record and currently ranks No. 45 in the RPI.
On paper, the Braves may have not had much success against those clubs this season, but the experience of facing them definitely prepared Alcorn State for the challenge of Southwestern Athletic Conference opponents.
“There was a method behind the madness of that scheduling,” Rey said. “The guys really bought into it and understood that it wasn’t just us doing a wild schedule. It was to prepare us for this if the time arose. It prepared us for the conference tournament and going into a hostile environment.”
“During the season, we played a lot of tough competition,” junior pitcher Steve Easter said. “I think that competition helped us to deal with adversity. Even though we didn’t win any of those big games, I felt like each time we faced a bigger team, we got better as an overall team. I think that’s what helped us in the long run.”
The Braves finished the regular season as the SWAC Eastern Division champions, earning a No. 1 seed in the league tournament. They could have rested on their laurels, but Rey had something a little more challenging scheduled. The Braves headed to Arizona for a three-game series, and then to Dallas Baptist to play four games. ASU did not win one of the seven contests, but the long losing streak did not get the team down as it headed into the SWAC Tournament.
“This is resilient ball club with a lot of guts,” Rey said. “We play with a lot of guts and a lot of fight. I think our strong suit is the way we swing the bats. If we can get timely hitting, we can be good. We also have strong pitching. What we need to clean up on is our defense and base-running. If we’re able to do that we may shock some people in the regionals.”
“I think our biggest strength is that we do not give up,” Easter said. “Even against the bigger schools, even if we’re down by a lot of runs, we would always find a way to score two or three late in the game.”
The competition, coupled with a disappointing loss to Grambling State in last year’s championship game, undoubtedly motivated the squad at this season’s SWAC Championship.
“We practiced harder this year after thinking about what happened in last year’s tournament and getting back to it and getting a better outcome,” senior designated hitter Kilby Perdomo, who was named Most Valuable Player of the SWAC Championship.
Alcorn State defeated Southern – Rey’s alma mater – in the championship game to claim the school’s first SWAC title and first-ever NCAA Tournament bid.
“It’s huge for the program,” Rey said. “I was left with a good team, but we to put things together. It’s really big for the University because we’re heading in the right direction.”
Rey played four seasons at Southern U., earning All-SWAC twice as a pitcher during his career. In 1998, Southern head coach Roger Cador hired his former player as an assistant, and Rey served under the long-time coach until getting his first head coaching job at Grambling State in 2007. During Rey’s coaching stint at Southern, the Jaguars advanced to the NCAA tournament six times.
“(Cador) taught me how to run a program,” Rey said. “He not only taught us to run a program baseball-wise, but how to run a courteous program, a very straightforward program and a disciplined program. Also, I learned the one key ingredient is that if you get good ball players, it makes for an awesome coach.”
Easter says that Rey has brought a competitive spirit to the baseball program, especially in practices, which has revved up the team’s enthusiasm and competitive drive. That new philosophy has certainly gotten the results Rey is looking for as he tries to build Alcorn State into a well-respected opponent.
“Any time you get a chance to play in the regionals and win a conference championship and also be on ESPNU, I think that’s big,” Rey said. “I think the buzz it out now, and we could be a force to reckon with for some time to come. Now, kids know about the little school up in Southern Mississippi. We’ve really been riding people like (former football players) Steve McNair and Donald Driver, but if (baseball) can continue to do things, we can start riding some of our own names.”
Alcorn State will find out its first regional assignment when the NCAA Selection Show airs at 12:30 p.m. ET Monday on ESPN.