Panthers Embrace Blue-Collar Mentality As Season Opener Looms

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NCAADI/SWAC/Baseball

 

Prairie View A&M Sports Information

 

PRAIRIE VIEW – On a blustery February afternoon, Prairie View A&M baseball coach Auntwan Riggins sits stoically in the visitor’s dugout, reflecting on what’s to come.

Practice is just minutes away, hence the crunching of cleats into dirt and the random chatter offering a soundtrack to his thoughts. The season-opener is just days away, and the main thing on his mind right now is what he’s called a “good problem” to have.

Problems are rarely, if ever, good. But Riggins feels the 2020 Panthers might be an exception to the rule.

So here’s the situation: Prairie View A&M returns eight positional starters and virtually every contributing member of the 2019 pitching staff. The Panthers have five players that hit at least .300 or better back in the fold. From some standpoints, those are good things.

Here’s where it gets tricky: While the returnees have made strides in the offseason, the new faces – 15 of them, thereabouts – have pushed the incumbents to the point where it’s created a bit of a quandary for the fifth-year skipper.

“This is the first time to where of all the kids I have on my roster, I don’t know for sure who will travel,” Riggins said. “And that’s because everybody has been competing and doing well. It’s a good problem to have… If we go out there and compete every day, we will have a chance.”

The intended destination is not only a fourth-straight berth into the Southwestern Athletic Conference Baseball Tournament, but a deep postseason run that ideally culminates with the Panthers’ first conference title since 2012. But things like that don’t just happen overnight.

To that end, the Panthers’ coaching staff focused their efforts a bit differently on the recruiting trails, and early dividends indicate that while the opening day roster may look very familiar, a whole lot may be changing for Panther baseball on the Hill.

Let’s take a closer look as to what to expect from the 2020 Panthers.

“We shouldn’t be surprised by anything…”
Sometimes the best surprise one can get is none at all – at least, that’s the way Riggins views the Panthers’ pitching staff.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to him if this year’s rotation improved upon last season’s efforts. In fact, that’s the expectation in 2020. After all, the staff is led by a pair of experienced seniors in Tyler Laux and Kyle Smith, and if the offseason prep is any indication, Riggins believes the hurlers from the Hill may be worth getting excited about.

“We shouldn’t be surprised by anything,” Riggins said of his returning players. “I think it gives us an upper hand to really compete within the conference.”

Laux went 3-4 in 21 appearances – four starts – in 2019, posting a team-leading 4.91 ERA while fanning 49 hitters in 68.1 frames of work.

Smith was the team’s workhorse, throwing a Panther-best 84.1 innings with a 4-6 record and a team-high 51 strikeouts.

“Both of those guys have worked very hard in the weight room. Tyler actually gained some weight and he’s a little bit more focused this season,” Riggins said. “Anytime either guy takes the mound, we have a chance to win. They’ve worked their butts off, and while I expect a lot out of them, they expect even more from themselves. I like them as the anchors on the staff.”

Additionally, the Panthers added depth with key additions that can fortify the bullpen. Notably, JUCO transfer Robert Miles and freshman Tyrone Tubbs have impressed.

“They’ve had really good prep work,” Riggins said. “We were able to go out and get guys that can help our bullpen and give us a chance to win from there. I’m really excited about our pitching staff this season.”

“I expect us to be better…”
The Panthers’ defense was admittedly an area of weakness in 2019, and with known quantities on the mound, Riggins said that the mantra around the first line of defense is about putting familiar faces in new places to keep the Panthers competitive on the diamond.

“Defensively, I expect us to be better. We shouldn’t bat the ball around like we did last year,” Riggins said. “Our pitching and our defense should be able to keep us in games.”

In sophomore Alex Martinez and senior catcher Tyler Gordon, the Panthers have two talented individuals to build around.

Martinez projects as a heart of the order hitter and Player/Hitter of the Year candidate who can deliver for power and average, as the preseason All-SWAC honoree hit .323 with 14 doubles, 11 home runs and 58 runs batted in. The Houstonian collected 64 total hits and scored 43 runs while recording a .571 slugging percentage.

Gordon, also a preseason all-conference selection, posted a .976 fielding percentage behind the plate for Prairie View in 2019 and was a productive hitter as well, hitting .299 with 29 hits, 21 runs scored and 17 RBI.

Likely to flesh things out there are senior Andrew Garcia (.302 BA, 31 R, 38 H, 16 RBI) and newcomer Christian Mendez, who may have gone overlooked due to his stature despite big numbers at the JUCO level. Mendez may also log time in the outfield.

“He’s a little undersized for a kid that hit .440 with 22 doubles in his last season, and I think that’s why I had the opportunity to get him,” Riggins said of Mendez. “When I looked at his stats, they told me one of two things: either he’s short, or he can’t run. The doubles total put that latter concern to bed.”

“We just have to trust in one another …” 
In senior and preseason All-SWAC choice Xavier Jefferson, senior Brian Williams and junior Demarie’ Smith, the outfield could be one of the top two-way units that Riggins has had during his tenure at Prairie View A&M.

Jefferson enters 2020 with a clean bill of health, but despite an injury-plagued 2019, he still ranked among the team’s best bats, hitting .310 with 31 hits and 26 runs scored. He drove in 12 runs and put up a .420 slugging percentage.

With some minor reshuffling there as well, the roamers should tie together a unit that Riggins expects to be one of the most improved in all of SWAC baseball.

“There were a few games last year where mental mistakes cost us … but we’re a year older and wiser now, and I think that last year, what it came down to was a lack of trust between pitching and defense,” Riggins said. “We’ve worked on mentally preparing them against that. We just have to trust in one another to get through it.”

A name to watch there is freshman Brayden Johnson, who has already flashed as potentially one of the top bats on the roster in addition to his defensive ability.

“He’s a kid that just can flat out hit,” Riggins said. “He’s young, but I’m expecting him to do what he’s always done, which is hit.”

“… do one thing to help your team win the day…”
Despite having a lot working in their favor, the Panthers still have a tough road to travel.

Selected to finish fourth in the SWAC Western Division – which has delivered three different tournament finalists and four of the past five league tournament champions – the Panthers overtaking the competition is much easier said than done.

To that end, the team appears to have embraced a blue-collar mentality predicated on effort, trust and a grinder’s approach to the game. This will be put to the test early in the 2020 Andre Dawson Classic, an event in which the Panthers are making their sixth appearance.

“In the past, I’ve been really excited about what we have on paper, but the key is to get it all to pan out on the field,” Riggins said. “Usually, you go out and try to get the best kids you can get talent-wise, but sometimes they don’t fit the program’s vision. This time, we went out and got some baseball kids – guys who understand that even though they may or may not play, they keep working. The guys are holding each other accountable. They get on one another before I even have the chance to. It’s a plus to have a team that can police itself.”

Scheduled to face the likes of Alabama State, Alcorn State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and New Orleans, the plan isn’t to figure out what the Panthers are bringing to the table. That’s already known.

The idea, Riggins said, is finding out whether or not the Panthers can bring it every day.

“I already know what I have in our dugout. We have a lot of guys who understand what it takes to win, and they’re going to do everything in their power to help us get there,” Riggins said. “It’s about competing and being consistent, and doing it every pitch, every inning and every game. It’s going to be about grinding it out and doing your job. I tell the guys that the key is for each of them to go out and do one thing to help your team win the day. That’s all that matters.”

2020 Andre Dawson Classic Schedule:
Feb. 14 – Panthers vs. Alabama State, 11 a.m.
Feb. 14 – Panthers vs. Alcorn State, 3 p.m.
Feb. 15 – Panthers vs. Arkansas-Pine Bluff, 1 p.m.
Feb. 16 – Panthers vs. New Orleans, 2 p.m.
Coverage will be provided via MLB.com

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