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Alabama State wins first SWAC baseball tourney title since 2016, headed to NCAAs

Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Baseball Tournament Champions

Solomon Crenshaw Jr.

For The Birmingham Times

When it comes to baseball, Corey King keeps his prayers very simple.

“I only ask God one thing: Give me the opportunity and I’ll get the job done,” the Alabama State University baseball player said on the diamond of Regions Field Sunday. “He gave me the opportunity and I got the job done.”

The job was to deliver the game-winning hit in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Baseball Tournament, which is what the sophomore did. He belted a run-scoring double in the top of the 14th inning to give the Hornets a lead they would not relinquish.

Four hours and 53 minutes after the first pitch, the Hornets stormed onto the field to celebrate with one another. Eventually, coach Jose’ Vazquez got a cold shower as his players dumped the contents of a cooler on him.

“That felt good,” he said.

The Hornets earned the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament and was assigned to the Tennessee Regional when the NCAA playoff bracket was released on Monday. On Friday, ASU will face the host Tennessee Volunteers, who Sunday beat the Florida Gators 8-5 to wrap up the Southeastern Conference tournament at the Hoover Met.

The SWAC championship and NCAA Tournament berth are the second in Alabama State’s history. In 2016, the Hornets went undefeated in conference play en route to qualifying for the Tallahassee Regional, where they lost to Florida State and South Alabama.

ASU’s Jabronski Williams, left, with Corey King. (Photo by Joshua Padilla / Florida A&M)

King’s game-winning hit on Sunday came on swing that he nearly didn’t get to take. Vazquez said he considered having King, his designated hitter, to bunt to put junior centerfielder Ian Matos in scoring position.

“I looked at my hitting coach and he said, ‘Let Corey swing away,’” Vazquez recalled. “I looked at him and he gave me the sign and I just let him hit. I went with him.”

Even after getting the lead in the top of the 14th, there was still work to do. After a flyout, Southern got back-to-back walks to bring left-handed batter Jaylen Armstrong to the plate.

“We’re covering the line (so there would be) no doubles,” the coach said. “I moved (third baseman Christian Lopez) to his left and the ball came right at him. He stepped on the bag, he makes the throw and here we are. Champs.”

The Jaguars hold a record 19 SWAC Baseball Tournament championships, including titles in 2019 and 2020. Southern was bidding for its third straight SWAC title in as many tourney appearances.

As the Hornets mugged for pictures on the infield, a flag of the Dominican Republic was right out front. The flag had hung in the team’s dugout as a reminder of a teammate who was not present.

“Angel Jimenez, one of our everyday guys, his mom, after 24 games in the season, had a stroke. It was very serious,” the coach said. “Angel had to go to the Dominican Republic to take care of his mom and he never came back for the season. Guys were playing for their teammate over there.”

Meanwhile, the Southern Jaguars were visibly disappointed. The Cats had proved to have multiple lives as they repeatedly came back to notch wins during their stay in Birmingham.

But they ran out of lives against the Hornets.

“This sucks,” coach Chris Crenshaw said. “We left everything that we had on the field. We made every possible move we could make to win that game. Baseball happened today.”

The game was tied three times in regulation play and once again at 5-5 after 13 innings. Trenton Jamison’s chopper to second yielded an error that gave Alabama State a 5-4 lead.

The Jaguars tied the game when a run scored as Southern’s Gustavo Nava Sanchez hit into a bases loaded double play with no outs. That rally ended after an intentional walk to Tremaine Spears and a fly out by Quincy Smith II.

ASU pitcher Breon Pooler was tabbed the most valuable player. He scattered six hits over 5 2/3 innings Sunday with four strikeouts and one walk.

For the tournament, the senior right-hander pitched 13 innings, allowing nine hits, two runs, two earned runs while walking four and striking out six.

Other Hornets named to the all-tournament team are King, senior pitcher Austin King and junior catcher Hunter May.

Updated at 4:10 p.m. on 5/30/22 to include where, and the opponent, ASU will play in the regionals.