This time last year, the world was spinning nearly 100 miles per hour for Prairie View A&M University head baseball coach Waskyla Cullivan. After participating in the SWAC Tournament Championship for the fourth consecutive season in 2008, the dynamics of the Prairie View A&M baseball program changed drastically in the summer as former head coach Michael Robertson accepted a similar position at Texas Southern as the school’s head baseball coach. As a result, Cullivan was promoted to head coach and a normally quiet offseason turned quite busy as most of his time was dedicated to making the transition from assistant to head coach.
Once the season began, Prairie View endured an up-and-down 2009 campaign which was partly due to the loss of several key pitchers from the previous season. Despite the issues, Prairie View still managed to remain in contention for a SWAC Tournament bid but one bad inning in a make-up game against Grambling State forced the Panthers to miss the postseason for the first time since 2004.
As a result, Cullivan hit the recruiting trail hard over the summer and brought in 18 newcomers. Unlike last season’s recruiting class, which featured a plethora of freshmen, the Panthers will feature an abundance of junior college players who’ve played at the highest level in the JUCO ranks. In addition to the newcomers, the Panthers return both of their key starters on the mound which should pay dividends down the stretch.
“I have three players who participated in the junior college world series last year with two earning All-American honors,” said Cullivan. “I knew we were going to lose a lot of seniors so I focused on the junior college route as I anticipate them coming in and making an immediate impact.”
On the mound, graduation, injuries and early defections hit the Panthers’ pitching staff hard last season as all three weekend starters were new to their roles. Fortunately, Prairie View won’t be in the same situation this season as the 1-2 tandem of Ben Blackburn and Mark Almaguer return to reprise their roles along with the recovery of sophomore Derek Zapata.
“Pitching is the name of the game as you need to have a quality staff in order to win games in all levels of baseball,” said Cullivan. “Blackburn turned out to be a surprise in his first season as a pitcher while Mark should be better with a full year of experience as a starter. Derek returns from an injury that sidelined him all of last year and should return to form as he rounds out the rotation.”
In the field, fans familiar with past Prairie View A&M lineups will have to study their roster sheets prior to the season opener as only one full-time starter returns. Despite a brand-new lineup, Cullivan doesn’t anticipate much of a learning curve for his new position players.
“I think it’s an advantage for me because I had a chance to recruit each one of them,” said Cullivan. “Each player will fill areas of need for us.”
As usual, the schedule will be intense for the Panthers with a solid mix of teams from the Southland Conference coupled with the program’s first-ever meeting against the University of Texas. In addition to its usual slate of teams from the SWAC West, the Panthers will compete against Alcorn State of the SWAC’s Eastern Division.
Prairie View’s season begins on Friday, Feb. 19 at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi