In the course of one year, the Arkansas-Pine Bluff baseball team has completely turned around its program and the conference has taken notice.
UAPB head coach Carlos James was named the league’s Coach of the Year and shortstop Isias Alcantar was named the SWAC Player of the Year.
“It is a real honor,” James said. “My assistant coaches have had a big hand in me getting this award and after that, it is the team.
“I’m just honored that they put my name on the trophy. You got to surround yourself with not only good people but the right people.”’
James led UAPB to a 21-30 recording, including a 13-11 mark in conference play. The Golden Lions finished home play with a 12-9 record.
Alcantar, a junior, played in 51 games and led UAPB with a 346 batting average. He ranked first in the SWAC in hits (68), total bases (96), at bats (198), and batting average facing two outs (.459). He also led the Golden Lions in slugging percentage (.485) and RBIs (38).
“When we recruited him, that was one of the things we told him he would be able to accomplish,” James said. “He lived up to all of that.
James said Alcantar had also gotten some interest from Virginia Tech.
“The kid does work hard and is probably one of the hardest working players we have,” Alcantar said. “He is one of the best players that I have ever coached and he is very deserving.”
At the beginning of the year, UAPB was selected to finish fifth in the preseason poll after ending its 2012 campaign 8-38.
“We have a good coaching staff and a good group of guys that are pushing our program in the same direction,” James said.
UAPB swept Prairie View A&M at home on Saturday to finish in second in the Western Division.
“It is a big step for us,” James said. “We feel we are a year ahead of schedule. Getting to 20 wins and in just 2 1/2 years. It is really quite something.”
James said that’s why he schedules the tougher non-conference opponents.
“We want to take this program to another level,” James said.
UAPB will face Alcorn State today in the first round of the SWAC tournament at 9 a.m. in Fort Worth, Texas. Alcorn State finished the season 15-39 and 14-10 in the SWAC.
“I know (Barret Ray) will have is team ready to play for the tournament,” James said. “You have to throw out their record.”
UAPB defeated Alcorn State 10-3 on March 27.
“We have had some success against them, but we are not taking them for granted” James said. “It is just about winning and getting to the next round.
“I have a lot of respect for them and their program. Hopefully we take care of business and come out on top.”
Scheduled to start for UAPB is junior Mikey Ramirez.
“Mikey is a really heavy pitcher,” James said. “He is smart and he knows how to mix it well. He keeps the ball down and that is going to be a premium.”
In 13 appearances, Ramirez is 3-3 with an ERA of 3.78 in 64 1/3 innings pitched. He has allowed 30 runs (27 earned) on 68 hits with 13 walks and 43 strikeouts.
“If Mikey gets in a groove, he can roll through a line-up pretty quick,” James said. “He has been sharp and I expect him to be sharp tomorrow.”
The tournament is being held at LaGrave Field. James said it is a hitter’s park, which may work in UAPB’s favor.
“The team that pitches the best is probably going to win the tournament,” James said. “And just looking at the stats, we got the best pitching so we have a chance of winning the tournament.”
The Golden Lions pitching staff combined for an ERA of 4.20, which ranks first in the conference. UAPB had three named as the SWAC Pitchers of the Week, including junior Kyle Schwartz.
Schwartz helped jump start UAPB’s doubleheader sweep over Prairie View A&M. He pitched 8 2/3 innings to guide the Golden Lions to a 5-4 win over the Panthers in the first game.
Schwartz allowed four runs (two earned) on eight hits with six strikeouts.
“Our overall ERA was 4.20 but in conference it was about 3.50,” James said. “Our guys have done a great job and usually the stats don’t lie.”
In practice this week, temperatures have risen as high as 90 degrees.
“Pitching usually wins out in warm weather,” James said. “We are banking on our guys pitching well.”