Sports

Southern Jaguars are pride of HBCU baseball after its upset of defending national champion LSU

In a sport committed to increasing its number of Black players, Southern University's upset of LSU this week was a victory for all HBCU baseball programs.

The level of play and coaching at historically Black colleges and universities has risen in recent years but wins over Power Five programs, let alone a defending national champion, have been rare. Southern's 12-7 victory Monday at Alex Box Stadium — 20 minutes south of its campus in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — was only the sixth since 2020 by an HBCU against an opponent from Division I's top level.

"It helps HBCUs because kids across the board will see a Southern and think if they can beat an LSU, maybe I can be on that roster as a student-athlete and try to elevate that program," said Michael Coker, who has written about HBCU baseball for 25 years and runs the website Black College Nines. "That's the significance of an HBCU knocking off a (top) team — they tend to get a few more really good players who would have not even considered an HBCU."

One of those good players who migrated to Southern is Tyeler Hawkins. He spent four years at Louisville and got limited playing time after being ranked the No. 2 outfielder in Kentucky by Perfect Game and making all-state three times during his prep career in Lexington.

Southern coach Chris Crenshaw went into the transfer portal last summer to land Hawkins, a graduate student who said an HBCU seemed like a good place to "ball out." Hawkins did just that against LSU, going 3 for 6 with a home run and three RBIs.

“That was probably the greatest moment I’ve ever had on a baseball field, genuinely, and I’m glad I had it with these dudes,” Hawkins said. “I’m genuinely happy here. I’m blessed. We are blessed.”

The Jaguars (12-13) went into Monday's game with seven wins in their last eight games. The Tigers (20-10) had lost five of six and were swept at No. 1 Arkansas over the weekend.

“It already was in the air,” Hawkins said, referring to the conditions for an upset.

Kameron Byrd, Jalon Mack and KJ White had two hits apiece and Ryan Ollison doubled and drove in three runs. The Jaguars produced eight runs with two outs.

Nick Luckett, Antoine Harris and Jerry Burkett II held LSU to four hits and combined for 11 strikeouts. They also walked 11, but LSU was just 1 for 14 with runners in scoring position.

Missouri coach Kerrick Jackson, the first Black Southeastern Conference head baseball coach, offered congratulations. He coached Southern to the 2019 Southwestern Athletic Conference championship and an NCAA regional. He chairs the American Baseball Coaches Association's Diversity in Baseball Committee, which works to increase diversity in the coaching ranks and Black participation in youth baseball.

“I thought that was great win for Southern last night,” Jackson said in an email to The Associated Press. “Anytime you can get a win against a program of that quality, it becomes a belief builder win for your program. Congrats to Coach Crenshaw and the crew for a job well done.”

Crenshaw said the win was important to the Black baseball community, whose relatively low numbers have been a concern at all levels of the game.

A study by The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at UCF found African American players represented just 6.2% of players on MLB opening day rosters in 2023, down from 7.2% in 2022. Both figures were the lowest since the study began in 1991, when 18% of MLB players were Black.

In Division I baseball, Black players made up 6% of the total in 2023. Even at HBCUs, less than half of the players were Black. In 2023, the HBCU breakdown was 45% Black, 24% white and 31% other races.

Crenshaw said there are promising signs. MLB’s diversity-focused programming draws 1,200 to 1,500 youngsters each year. At the college level, more than 200 HBCU players participated in MLB’s Andre Dawson Classic, and four years ago Coker founded the Black College World Series for small schools.

Crenshaw hopes Black youngsters take notice of what his team accomplished and give serious consideration to the sport and HBCUs.

“Even though it was one night," he said, “it was a big night in our community."

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AP college sports: https://apnews.com/hub/college-sports

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