JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — Three weeks ago, Jackson State’s baseball team stood on the side of the interstate, watching as a fire destroyed its bus.
Now the Tigers (31-23) are headed to the NCAA tournament.
It’s been a crazy May for Jackson State, which was struggling before the team’s bus caught on fire May 5 during a road trip to play Savannah State. No one was injured in the blaze, but nearly all of the team’s equipment was destroyed. Several players also lost a substantial amount of personal items — including wallets, keys and clothes.
But the Tigers pushed aside the adversity to win the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament one week later. Now they’ll face No. 6 overall seed Louisiana-Lafayette (53-7) in the NCAA tournament’s opening round Friday.
It’s the second straight year Jackson State has made the NCAA tournament.
The Tigers lost two straight games in last year’s double-elimination regional but feel they’re better prepared to pull an upset or two this weekend in Lafayette, Louisiana.
Mississippi State (37-22) and San Diego State (42-19) are the other two teams in the regional.
“We have a lot of older guys — a lot of seniors,” senior catcher Jose Cruz said. “We’re used to this, so it’s not new. We’ll be adapted to it. We’ve just got to play and we’ve got to win. If they get up and score and the crowd is on their side, we’ve got to respond.”
Cruz said the bus fire helped galvanize the team in early May. The Tigers struggled with high expectations throughout the season, but the fire took some of the pressure off, and the players were simply thankful to be back on the field.
“It’s pretty crazy to think how life can be taken away in a couple quick seconds,” Cruz said.
“It motivated us,” he added. “All the odds were against us.”
Jackson State had less than a week after the fire to regroup for the SWAC tournament, and the logistics proved challenging. New uniforms and gloves were ordered, while several players and coaches had to get new keys and identification. Schools like Ole Miss and Mississippi State helped by donating some equipment.
Cruz said the toughest adjustment was breaking in the new gloves — a rigorous and highly personalized task that can sometimes take weeks. He said the team received the new shipment two days before the SWAC tournament.
“We’re all living in a dorm right now, and it was kind of hilarious seeing 25 guys walking around pounding a ball into their glove for two straight days,” Cruz said. “That’s all we did all day and all night.”
And then the Tigers, who had just a 9-15 league record during the regular season, blasted through the SWAC tournament with four straight wins.
Now it’s on to Lafayette. Coach Omar Johnson said his team is ready to make the most of the opportunity.
“Without a doubt,” Johnson said. “They’ll be prepared and excited.”