In early May, Jackson State had just completed a stretch that saw them lose six games in nine tries. Then their bus went up in flames.
It was during a road trip to Savannah State University on May 5 that the team’s bus carrying players, coaches and equipment caught fire on I-20 about 15 miles west of Birmingham.
“The bus is gone,” Jackson State assistant coach Chris Stamps said that day. “We’re all OK. We lost all our equipment, though.”
Their only mode of transportation was left in charred ruins on the side of a highway. Several hours later the team returned to campus a little shaken, a little marred by the experience. The scheduled game against Savannah State was immediatedly cancelled. So was the two-game series finale at Norfolk State.
The regular season ended with the JSU, the defending conference champions, sitting at 9-15 in league play heading into a SWAC baseball tournament that few figured they’d win in the middle of a slide
It is not uncommon for ball players in the midst of a slump to burn their equipment as some sacrifice to the baseball gods to purge whatever restrictive spirits exists.
However, a burning bus housing all those tools was a strange way to go about it.
“As long as we still had our health we knew we still could win the championship,” said JSU senior outfielder Charles Tillery. “We practiced hard each day. We worked our butts off.”
It is one thing to be confident when you’ve survived and overcome the many trials by fire. It is another to be that way even when those same trials leave behind second and third-degree burns.
Teams made up of young men often talk about being a family. A brotherhood forged by spending countless hours together on road trips, in practices and during grueling workouts.
After not having played a game in 14 games upon arriving in New Orleans, that brazen kinship would be tested against Arkansas Pine-Bluff, the newly minted Western Division champion in the tournament’s opening round.
It was a route. A team that had trouble consistently scoring runs scored seven led by Bryce Taylor and Tillery, who each tallied a pair of RBI in the 7-1 win.
The next two days saw the Tigers slug their way to a combined 20 runs against Alabama A&M and Prairie View to advance to the championship game against Alabama State. To put that outburst into perspective, JSU scored just 12 in a three-game series versus Alcorn State just a few weeks earlier.
The title game was ever symbolic of the Tigers’ season in many ways. They jumped out to an early lead before the Hornets rallied to take a 6-5 advantage in the sixth inning.
Success. Failure. Punched. Counterpunch.
A single here. Triple there. A double later and JSU was suddenly up 9-7 in the late innings over an opponent that was more talented, in a game that they probably had no business being in to begin with.
One final push by Alabama State in the ninth ended on a strikeout and pop out.
JSU had reached its final destination in a 2014 season that presented road blocks and challenges both real and imagined.
“They’re used to some adversity,” head coach Omar Johnson said.