Four more teams punched tickets to regionals this weekend, joining Ivy League champion Columbia in the field of 64. And the coaching carousel lurched into motion today with news that Lelo Prado will move into an athletics administration role at South Florida. We'll get to that in a moment, but first a look at this weekend's automatic qualifiers:
• Bethune-Cookman is headed to regionals for the 14th time in the last 16 years after making an unbeaten run through the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, capped by a 4-2 win against Norfolk State in today's championship game. Bryant Munoz hit a three-run double in the second inning to put the Wildcats ahead for good, as three B-CU pitchers held Norfolk State scoreless after the third inning.
It wasn't a typically dominant Bethune-Cookman team during the regular season, finishing 14-10 in conference play and 22-31 overall in the regular season. But the Wildcats went 4-0 in the conference tournament, as ace Montana Durapau picked up a pair of wins. He struck out 14 over eight shutout innings in the opener against Maryland-Eastern Shore, then battled through five innings in the semifinals against Savannah State to improve to 11-1 on the season.
• Jackson State won the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship Sunday, knocking off top-seeded Alabama State 9-8. Both teams were 3-0 in the tournament entering the title game, where Alabama State was a strong favorite after going 21-3 in the SWAC in the regular season (while JSU went 9-15). Alabama State went 5-1 against Jackson State in the regular season, but the Tigers won the game that mattered most. Melvin Rodriguez (3-for-4, R, 2 RBI) led Jackson State's balanced 17-hit attack, and the Tigers took the lead for good with three runs in the sixth inning. Tournament MVP Desmond Russell earned the win with five innings of work and also went 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI at the plate.
Jackson State repeated as SWAC champion for the first time since 1994-95.
"Our kids battled their butts off," Jackson State coach Omar Johnson told the New Orleans Advocate. "We're fortunate the guys came out and did the job that they did. I give all the credit to our players. Alabama State's an awesome team. They're well-coached. They had an outstanding year."
The Hornets (37-20) reached the SWAC title game for the first time but fell short of the larger goal of making it to regionals. Still, their program has made enormous strides in three years under coach Mervyl Melendez (who built B-CU into a juggernaut before leaving to take on a new challenge at Alabama State).
• As we wrote in the Friday Roundup, Bucknell won the Patriot League title to earn its third trip to regionals since 2008. And Sunday, Cal Poly officially punched its ticket by clinching the Big West championship (there is no Big West tournament). The Big West title is Cal Poly's first in its 18 years in the conference.
"It took long enough," Cal Poly coach Larry Lee said afterward. "It feels good to get that first one out of the way and shows how difficult it is to win the Big West.
"I am proud of the way our players went about doing everything we asked of them. This is a good group, they play hard and know how to win. It's a very tight-knit group."
Prado Steps Down
South Florida failed to make a regional in Lelo Prado's eight seasons as head coach, even though the Bulls spent most of that period as the lone warm-weather team in the Big East. On Monday, Prado stepped down to become associate athletic director for administration and external relations. Prado, who is in the final year of his contract, will coach the Bulls in this week's American Athletic Conference tournament. The Bulls went 250-291 under his leadership.
"I appreciate everything Lelo has done for the USF baseball program and believe he has helped put it in a position to be great," athletic director Mark Harlan said in a release. "I am very excited that he has agreed to join our administrative leadership team. Lelo's tremendous personality, presence in the community and talent for connecting with people will be a great asset."
Prado won two Division II national championships at the University of Tampa, and USF might look back to UT for his replacement. Joe Urso has led the Spartans to three national championships in 14 seasons as head coach, and they carry a remarkable 51-2 record into the D-II National Championship Finals in Cary, N.C., where they seek to repeat as national champs.
A top assistant in the area could also make sense at USF, perhaps Florida State's highly regarded pitching coach Mike Bell, Florida recruiting coordinator Craig Bell, or Mississippi hitting coach Cliff Godwin (who has experience in the area at Central Florida). USF could also be a desirable destination for a successful mid-major coach at a cold-weather school, like Illinois State's Mark Kingston. Or maybe the Bulls will look back to Louisville (where Prado coached before taking the USF job) and make a run at Cardinals assistants Chris Lemonis or Roger Williams, the co-recipients of the 2013 Baseball America/ABCA Assistant Coach of the Year award.
There is a popular perception in the coaching community that USF could be a great job, given the wealth of talent in the region and the weather. The Bulls should have a chance to make a significant splash with this hire.