Strong SEC tourney can aid NCAA chances

Strong SEC tourney can aid NCAA chances

COLLEGE STATION — Former NFL and college football coach John Robinson once offered Jim Schlossnagle some career advice when both were coaching at UNLV in the early 2000s.

“You need to slow down,” Robinson told Schlossnagle of achieving too much too fast at a program.

Robinson was also UNLV’s athletic director at the time, and he witnessed Schlossnagle take a program with six losing seasons in the previous 10 years in league play to a 24-6 mark and the NCAA Tournament in his second year as a college head coach.

Schlossnagle moved on to TCU, where he continued refusing to slow down, propelling the Horned Frogs to all five of their College World Series appearances. Then a year ago at Texas A&M, Schlossnagle doubled the Aggies’ all-time CWS victories with two of his own in Omaha, Neb., right off the bat.

“I don’t want to slow down,” Schlossnagle said at the time. “I want to win a national title. And sooner rather than later.”

About that advice … Schlossnagle built a ton of goodwill at A&M in a short time, but it’s been a tough second season by his and the Aggies’ six standards. A&M is hoping to squeeze into the NCAA Tournament with a 14-16 record in Southeastern Conference play.

“I’ll take the four seed in Anchorage right now, to be honest with you,” Schlossnagle semi-kidded on Monday. (There is no regional in Alaska.) “But the strength of the league speaks for itself, and we’ve won six of our last eight SEC series.”

The Aggies (32-23) can help themselves with a run in the SEC tournament in Hoover, Ala., and they face No. 18 Tennessee (38-18, 16-14) at about 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in an opening-round elimination game. A&M is seeded 10th in the tournament and the Volunteers seventh, and they follow the 9:30 a.m. tournament opener between sixth-seeded South Carolina and 11th-seeded Georgia.

“If there’s a championship to be played for, we want to win it,” Schlossnagle said of a tournament title on the line this week near Birmingham, Ala.

In a stark example of what’s been a wacky SEC baseball season, the last two national champions, Mississippi State and Mississippi, didn’t even make the 12-team tournament in the 14-team league (and therefore won’t make the NCAA Tournament).

“There’s always value in winning, and since we’re not assured of anything beyond this week, we need to play well,” Schlossnagle said.

The winner of A&M-Tennessee draws second-seeded Arkansas on Wednesday as the double-elimination portion of the SEC tournament cranks up.

The Aggies needed to win at least two of three at Mississippi State last weekend to bolster their NCAA postseason hopes, and they did exactly that, including a 15-10 victory in the series finale Saturday.

A&M slugger Jace LaViolette, a freshman from Katy Tompkins, belted three home runs in the Aggies’ comeback victory over the Bulldogs on Friday after A&M had dropped the Thursday opener. LaViolette was named SEC player of the week by the league Monday, when he also made the 12-member All-SEC freshman team.

LaViolette’s 18 home runs are an Aggies freshman record, passing the 17 hit by A&M icon John Byington in 1987. The Aggies need LaViolette and the rest of the offense, led by first baseman Jack Moss’s .362 batting average, to continue heating up down the stretch because of a pitching staff that has struggled much of the season (but has improved a bit of late).

The Aggies own a team ERA of 5.79 ERA through 55 games, compared to the 4.67 of a year ago, when they made the CWS.

“Our starting pitching this past weekend (at MSU) was the best it’s been all year, so I was really encouraged by that,” Schlossnagle said.

Tennessee swept A&M in Knoxville, with the Volunteers prevailing 10-4, 8-7 and 9-6 from March 24-26. A year ago at this time, the Aggies were picking up steam in Schlossnagle’s first season and wound up winning their first two games of the SEC tournament against Florida and Alabama before losing in the semifinals to the Gators.

A&M then won all three of its games in a College Station regional of the NCAA Tournament against Oral Roberts, Louisiana-Lafayette and TCU before defeating Louisville in two one-run games in a College Station super regional to make the CWS for the first time since 2017 under Rob Childress.

Tennessee has won 15 of its last 19 games entering the postseason, a year after entering the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 1 in the country. The Volunteers last season finished 57-9 after losing a home super regional to Notre Dame with a berth in the CWS on the line.

“We have a bunch of lessons learned, a lot of momentum and … (we’re) marching forward,” Volunteers coach Tony Vitello said.

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