JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – In the history of Jacksonville sports, there are a few teams who wore the title of Cinderella particularly well. The 1970 Jacksonville University basketball team. The 1996 Jaguars. And now, you can add the 2021 JU baseball team to the list.
JU started the season with eight straight losses. They were swept by their cross-town rivals, UNF. They won only three of 18 conference games and finished the regular season with the worst record in the ASUN Conference.
And then, the magic started.
After beating Florida Gulf Coast, the top seed in the South Division of the ASUN in three straight games -- including a 17-1 blowout in the clincher -- the Dolphins advanced to the next round of the ASUN tournament, where they promptly beat the best team in the league, Liberty, then topped UNF and, on Saturday, they beat Liberty again to clinch the ASUN championship and an automatic bid to the NCAAs. It’s almost too good to be true.
“I woke up this morning, and it just said that really happened yesterday,” JU head coach Chris Hayes said Sunday. “It was a special, special day for our guys. I’m so happy for our players, for our university for our athletic director, our athletic department. It’s been a frustrating year, and we’ve had some lows, and we’ve fought through them. For this group to come together and finish the regular season and then finish the tournament the way they finished the tournament yesterday, is really special. It is and, you know, it’s, this was something that the guys will talk about a long time from now.”
Coming into the season, JU was expected to be much better than an 11-31 team. But that’s how they finished the regular season. The team includes a number of seniors who thought they might never get another chance to play college baseball last year at this time. But when the NCAA allowed an extra year of eligibility for any student-athlete who wanted one, infielder Dakota Julylia, outfielder Ruben Someillan, pitchers Mike Cassala, Tyler Santana and Jagger McCoy, and catcher Cory Heffron all came back for another shot at things. For a while, it looked like they wouldn’t have many memories to take from their senior years. That changed this week.
“It’s a culmination of a lot of different emotions, honestly,” Hayes said. “(For) the guys that didn’t think they were going to have that shot for them to come back. For them to stay loyal to the program, the program stayed loyal to them and give them the opportunity to fight through the mess that we had this year. Yeah, it was a lot of emotions yesterday. All of it positive, but there was a lot of emotions.”
The support JU had at UNF’s Harmon Stadium was evident as well on Saturday. After the game, Hayes celebrated the championship, trophy in hand, with Terry Alexander, the most successful baseball coach in JU history and a man Hayes played for and coached under at JU.
“To have everybody back and to have all the alumni of the local alumni, some of the guys from out of town to have T.A. there, everybody’s families and friends and fans, we had a great, we had a great showing,” Hayes said. “I’m so appreciative of the fans to stick with us throughout this year because there was some bad baseball out there this year for us. I mean, I didn’t necessarily want to watch us play either in some of those games.”
Now JU awaits its next assignment. Sunday night, the NCAA announced the sixteen regional hosts sites, which includes Gainesville, the closest regional for the Dolphins, but there is no guarantee JU goes to the closest regional. Florida State, a perennial host, is not hosting this year, so it is possible that the Gators, Seminoles and Dolphins could all be in the same regional in Gainesville.
The full list of regional sites (city, school, host school record)
- Austin, Texas - Texas (42-15)
- Columbia, South Carolina – South Carolina (33-21)
- Eugene, Oregon – Oregon (37-14)
- Fayetteville, Arkansas – Arkansas (46-10)
- Fort Worth, Texas – TCU (39-17); through games played 5/29/2021
- Gainesville, Florida – Florida (38-20)
- Greenville, North Carolina – East Carolina (41-15)
- Knoxville, Tennessee – Tennessee (45-16)
- Lubbock, Texas – Texas Tech (36-15)
- Nashville, Tennessee – Vanderbilt (40-15)
- Oxford, Mississippi – Ole Miss (41-19)
- Ruston, Louisiana – Louisiana Tech (40-18)
- South Bend, Indiana – Notre Dame (30-11)
- Stanford, California – Stanford (33-14)
- Starkville, Mississippi – Mississippi St. (40-15)
- Tucson, Arizona – Arizona (40-15)
The NCAA selection show airs Monday at noon. Chances are the Dolphins will again be underdogs when the bracket is revealed, and that’s just fine with Hayes.
“They’ve got a chip right now,” Hayes said. “And I think they’ve been hardened by the start of the season. I mean, look, we’re 728 that’s not good. We played bad baseball. And that hardened them, got them a little aggravated and disappointed in themselves, and disappointed in each other. And they pushed each other. They started holding each other accountable much more. And it was really great to see.”