2022 Southwestern Athletic Conference College Baseball Preview

Image credit: Jackson State dugout (Photo courtesy of Jackson State)

The SWAC this year has a different look, as it has added Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The moves expand the SWAC’s footprint, which now stretches from Florida to Texas. A bigger, better SWAC should make for an even more exciting competition.

Last year, Jackson State went undefeated in regular-season SWAC play only to fall in the SWAC Tournament championship game and miss out on the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers are sure to be looking for redemption in 2022, but claiming it won’t be easy with Southern, Alabama State and Florida A&M looking to stop them.

There are three new coaches in the league, as Reginald Williams takes over at Alcorn State, Stanley Stubbs is in at Mississippi Valley State and Davin Pierre was promoted to interim head coach at Grambling State, following James Cooper’s move to pro ball in November.

Can anyone beat Jackson State?

The Tigers last season went undefeated in SWAC play in the regular season, going 24-0. They ran off three more wins in the SWAC Tournament before getting upset, 7-6, by Southern in the winner-take-all championship game. Still, JSU was the first team to go undefeated in conference play since Alabama State in 2016.

A second straight undefeated season won’t happen—this is baseball, after all. But can any team in the SWAC unseat JSU from the top of the conference?

The Tigers again look to be loaded. Ty Hill (.432/.500/.662), the 2021 SWAC Player of the Year, returns, as do first baseman Chenar Brown (.366/.432/.648, 8 HR) and outfielder Jatavis Melton (.326/.489/.435, 23 SB). Under coach Omar Johnson, JSU always has an aggressive approach on the base paths and this year will be no different, as the Tigers will put plenty of pressure on opposing defenses.

On the mound, JSU must replace SWAC pitcher of the year Anthony Becerra, who is now on staff as a graduate assistant. But the Tigers swept the first-team all-SWAC pitching spots last season and their other two honorees—starter Nikelle Galatas (9-2, 3.12) and closer Steven Davila (5-1, 3.55, 8 SV)—both return.

Last year’s Tigers were a special team and comparing the 2022 group to them would be unfair. But there’s every reason to believe that JSU can again top the SWAC standings this spring.

What do the additions of Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M mean for the SWAC?

The SWAC this year adds Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M, which come to the conference from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference. The moves had a profound impact on the landscape of HBCU baseball, as their defections left the MEAC in a precarious situation and raised the SWAC’s profile.

From a structural standpoint, B-CU and FAMU enter the SWAC’s East Division, joining Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Jackson State and Mississippi Valley State. Alcorn State moves from the East to the West, joining Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Grambling State, Prairie View A&M, Southern and Texas Southern. The additions also led the SWAC to expand its conference schedule to 30 games (up from 24) and move its conference tournament back in the calendar to now be played on Memorial Day weekend, leading into Selection Monday.

But the move goes far beyond restructured divisions and an expanded conference slate. B-CU and FAMU historically were the MEAC’s most successful programs. Of the 37 conference titles the MEAC has awarded since reinstating the sport in 1984, B-CU won 19 and FAMU won eight. The SWAC already had impressive history on the diamond. Adding those two teams only further strengthens it as a baseball conference.

The MEAC, meanwhile, is now left with only four baseball-playing members. In addition to losing B-CU and FAMU, the conference this year also lost North Carolina A&T, which moved to the Big South Conference, and North Carolina Central, which eliminated its program. Conferences need six baseball-playing members for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which the MEAC now falls short of. It received a waiver that allowed it to keep its auto-bid for 2022, but its future is more uncertain.

How will Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M fare in their new conference?

B-CU and FAMU ran the MEAC over the last 38 years. FAMU dominated the conference in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s before B-CU rose to prominence and won 18 titles in 22 years from 1996-2017. The Rattlers have bounced back in recent seasons under coach Jamey Shouppe and won the championship in 2015 and 2019.

They won’t necessarily find the same success in their new conference, however. Of the 48 SWAC Tournament titles that have been awarded, Southern has won 19 and Jackson State has won 13. But in the 21st century, the spoils have been divided more evenly, with seven different programs winning the title at least once. Furthermore, the Wildcats and Rattlers join the East Division, which at the moment appears to be the stronger of the two divisions with Alabama State and Jackson State firmly established in the conference’s top tier.

This season, B-CU faces an especially difficult challenge. As an athletic department, it opted out of competition in the 2020-21 school year, leaving much unknown about the team going into this season. The Wildcats this fall brought in a big group of junior college transfers and those newcomers will play significant roles right away, as very few players who were part of the program in 2020 remain.

FAMU, meanwhile, is coming off a 22-34 season and a second-place finish in the MEAC’s South Division. The Rattlers return leading hitters LJ Bryant (.303/.423/.466) and Jared Weber (.297/.378/.427) and on the mound welcome back top reliever Zach Morea (4-1, 4.14) and top starter Kelyn Fox (7-2, 4.29). After posting a 6.36 team ERA and losing its three other starters, however, FAMU will need to find some more pitchers to step up this spring.

Neither B-CU nor FAMU is likely to change the balance of power in the East Division this spring, but both have the potential to join the contenders in time.

Can Southern win another title?

While Jackson State’s undefeated regular season and eventual NCAA Tournament snub were the story of the SWAC in 2021, it was Southern that represented the conference in the NCAA Tournament. The Jaguars upset the Tigers in the championship game to reach regionals for the second straight season.

It was a special ending to the season for the Jaguars, which went through a coaching change following fall practice when Kerrick Jackson resigned to become the president of the newly created MLB Draft League and assistant coach Chris Crenshaw was promoted to interim head coach. Following the 2021 season, the interim tag was removed from Crenshaw’s title and he will now begin his second season at the program’s helm.

The Jaguars return their top four hitters from 2021—Termaine Spears (.303/.421/.469), O’Neill Burgos (.298/.377/.482, 10 SB), Zavier Moore (.288/.435/.459) and Taj Porter (.280/.410/.453). Top starter Joseph Battaglia (5-4, 5.86) and closer Enrique Ozoa (0-0, 1.27, 7 SV) return to lead the pitching staff, although Southern needs to establish more depth after posting a 6.80 team ERA in 2021.

Southern is the clear favorite in the West Division and, as last year proved, anything can happen in the SWAC Tournament. The Jaguars will have as good a chance as anyone in the league at a bid to regionals.

Can Alabama State challenge for the title?

Alabama State hasn’t won the SWAC Tournament since 2016, when it went undefeated in conference play, but the Hornets have consistently been at or near the top of the standings. Could this be the year they make their return to the NCAA Tournament?

Alabama State will be led by righthander Breon Pooler (5-3, 3.36), who might be the best pitcher in the conference. It also welcomes back top reliever Payton Harris (2-1, 1.29), giving it a strong 1-2 punch on the mound. Offensively, the Hornets are replacing leading hitter Trenton Jamieson, but return shortstop Cristopher DeGuzman (.367/.451/.506), catcher Hunter May (.351/.527/.553) and outfielder Jabronski Williams (.329/.460/.483, 10 SB).

Alabama State’s pitching and defense are the strengths of the team and sets it apart from some of the other SWAC contenders. Unseating Jackson State won’t be easy—the Hornets went 0-6 against the Tigers in 2021—but Alabama State has the talent to do so.

Top Five 2022 Draft Prospects

1. Hunter May, C, Alabama State
2. Ty Hill, 3B, Jackson State
3. Tremaine Spears, OF, Southern
4. Breon Pooler, RHP, Alabama State
5. Chenar Brown, 1B, Jackson State

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