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Kevin Hill (Photo by David Barnes)[/caption]
Mark Calvi doesn’t make any bones about his South Alabama team’s exclusion from the postseason a year ago.
“It was our own fault,” Calvi said. “It wasn’t anyone else’s fault. We didn’t get hosed. We didn’t get screwed. None of that stuff. We did it to ourselves.”
|Vs. Top 50: 3-1
|Vs. Top 100: 7-6
|Vs. Top 50: 4
|Vs. 51-100: 7
|Vs. 101-200: 10
|Vs. 201+: 11
|Key Series (RPI)
|May 13-15 vs. La.-Lafayette (40)
|Don't Lose To … (RPI)
|April 22-24 vs. Southern (295)
|*RPI data as of Tuesday on WarrenNolan.com
The Jaguars went 37-20 in 2015 and won the Sun Belt Conference’s regular-season title with a 19-9 league record. Yet a No. 81 RPI meant they weren’t even in the conversation for an at-large NCAA tournament berth. They knew their season was finished the moment they lost the Sun Belt tournament title game to Louisiana-Lafayette. Such is the nature of the beast for mid-majors, who not only need to win themselves but also need their opponents to hold up their end of the bargain, though Calvi, USA’s fifth-year head coach, is adamant that the Jaguars needed only look in the mirror.
“We probably had, on paper, a tougher schedule last year than we have this year,” Calvi said. “It was hard to figure out (why the RPI wasn’t better). It really was. Some teams that we had played didn’t win as many as we thought they were going to. And then the bottom line is we left three or four games out there on the field—three or four games that we had—that we didn’t execute. We didn’t do enough to win.”
So far this spring, the Jaguars have been leaving nothing to chance.
After sweeping Texas State over the weekend, USA sits 18-6 overall and 9-0 in SBC play—the best conference start in program history—putting them alone in first place by three games. Moreover, they’re No. 9 in the RPI on WarrenNolan.com. Calvi is quick to point out that there are seven weeks of conference play left, but at the same time he concedes, “Obviously, I’d be a liar if I told you I wasn’t pleased with where we’re at. We’ve played some pretty good baseball.”
Last time around, USA’s RPI was undone by a 5-11 record against the top 100, as well as the fact it played 17 games against teams outside the top 200. It didn’t help that opponents they were counting on to give them a boost, like Central Florida, Mississippi State and Southern Mississippi, finished outside the top 50 themselves, while the Sun Belt saw just two of its teams finish in the top 100—ULL and USA.
Compare that to this year, where South Alabama is already 3-1 against the top 50 and 7-6 against the top 100. The conference schedule shouldn’t be as much a of a hindrance, either. The Sun Belt right now has four teams residing in the top 100—the Cajuns and Jaguars along with Troy and Texas-Arlington.
“You gotta win games, but it’s all about who you play, who you beat and then who they play,” Calvi said. “It really is. It’s about your opponent and who your opponent’s playing. It’s all about putting a good schedule together, playing good teams that play good teams. You’ve got to somehow play as many teams in the top 50, or who you think are going to be in the top 50. It’s all about playing as many teams in the top 50 as you can.”
To that end, the Jaguars play midweek games with SEC foes Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State, and they won a game against Georgia in a Week 2 tournament in Athens. Beyond the ever-valuable SEC games, their best RPI wins to date are their sweeping of a two-game midweek series with Southern Miss on March 1 and 2.
“They’re (midweek games) very important,” Calvi said. “You play a Southern Miss, they’re one of the better teams in the Southeast. They’re going to win games and they’re going to help you from a RPI standpoint. And then SEC teams, they have such a strong built-in RPI in league play, it’s worth your while to go play them.”
Nothing has come easy. Of USA’s first 24 games, 14 have been decided by two runs or less. Yet they’re 12-2 in those games, determined not to leave wins on the table as they did a year ago.
The Jaguars have had to weather a slow start by their best returning hitter, center fielder Cole Billingsley, but Calvi sees them having a more diverse attack than they did a season ago, when they finished 92nd nationally in scoring at 5.8 runs per game but hit just 12 homers all season. They already have 13 long balls in 24 games in 2016, led by Jared Barnes, Ben Gann and Adam Wolfe with three apiece
“We have some guys that can change the game with one swing of the bat, which we haven’t had for a couple years,” Calvi said. “We’ve had some on-base guys, some base stealers and singles hitters, but I think last year we finished with 17 percent of our hits were extra-base hits. This year, we’ve been 24 to 26 percent. If we stay in that range, I like our chances.”
Calvi admits the offense hasn’t hit its stride yet, either. Once it does, and they pair it with an all-senior rotation led by reigning Sun Belt pitcher of the year Kevin Hill, who’s already 5-1, 2.17, the Jaguars look like a team that should have staying power. And after the way their 2015 played out, they’re a team that knows the importance of every game, of every win.
“There’s a big difference when you view a situation as a threat instead of a challenge. You start to make more mistakes,” Calvi said. “It’s not like we’ve been an offensive juggernaut, that’s why we’ve played some closer games. Our guys, they seem to have thrived in situations where they’re behind. There’s been no panic. In games that we’ve gotten ahead early, I don’t think they’ve relaxed. I think they understand how important each and every pitch is.”