‘This is a Cinderella story:’ JU will face Old Dominion in baseball tourney opener

Members of the JU baseball team celebrate after learning that they would play Old Dominion in the NCAA tournament opener on Friday. (Justin Barney, News4Jax)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Cinderella has a dancing partner.

The Jacksonville University baseball team will start its NCAA baseball tournament in the Columbia, S.C. region and face top-seeded Old Dominion (42-14) on Friday night at 7.

The Dolphins (16-32) won the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament with a stunning run that no one could have seen coming. JU started the month of May with a 7-28 record. It entered the conference tournament with a 3-15 ASUN record.

And then. …

JU beat both top-seeded teams in the conference tournament. First, the Dolphins beat Florida Gulf Coast in three games, including a 17-1 blowout to bounce the Eagles. It beat another No. 1, Liberty on Thursday, then went 11 innings to beat rival UNF on Friday, and then beat Liberty again on Saturday to win the ASUN.

Now, the Dolphins are going dancing in the baseball postseason and get to do it away from the Sunshine State.

“This program has a history of success in competing at an extremely high level, and the regional appearance every year is an expectation,” said JU baseball coach Chris Hayes. “And these guys feel that expectation and to achieve this goal is a huge accomplishment.

Long thought to be headed to play in the Gainesville regional against Florida, a road trip to Old Dominion is on the table instead. There was an eruption at Monday’s viewing party when the Gators were tabbed to face South Florida in their region opener.

Pitcher Tyler Santana said that JU wanted a change of scenery for the regional round. They get it against the Monarchs, the Conference USA champs who earned a No. 11 overall seed and lead the NCAA with 101 home runs.

“This is a Cinderella story. We were one of the worst teams, statistically, one of the worst teams in the country. We never quit though, and like I said, our coaches really never quit,” said JU pitcher and designated hitter Mike Cassala, a Bartram Trail High graduate.

Santana, who beat Liberty in Thursday’s win-or-go-home game, came on in relief to close out the Flames. Watching the baseball selection show on Monday with teammates, Santana said that things still didn’t feel real.

“I’m still in disbelief that we even won the conference tournament because a month ago, we wouldn’t have ever even guessed we would have been in that position,” Santana said. “We just continue to work and try to get better every single day and luckily we got hot at the right time and it paid off.”

Outside of JU, Florida earned the No. 1 seed in the Gainesville regional and faces No. 4 South Florida at noon on Friday. Florida State, making its 43rd consecutive tournament appearance, earned a No. 3 seed in the Oxford regional and faces No. 2 Southern Miss at 3 p.m. on Friday.

NCAA regional schedules

Columbia Regional

#2 South Carolina (33-21) vs. #3 Virginia (29-23), 12 p.m., ESPN2

#1 Old Dominion (42-14) vs. #4 Jacksonville (16-32), 7 p.m., ESPN3

Gainesville Regional

#1 Florida (38-20) vs. #4 South Florida (28-27), 12 p.m., SECN

#2 Miami (FL) (32-19) vs. #3 South Alabama (33-20), 5 p.m., ACCN

Oxford Regional

#2 Southern Miss (37-19) vs. #3 Florida State (30-22), 3 p.m., ESPNU

#1 Ole Miss (41-19) vs. #4 Southeast Missouri State (30-20), 8 p.m., ESPN3

About the Author:

Justin Barney joined News4Jax in February 2019, but he’s been covering sports on the First Coast for more than 20 years.