From the Bird’s Nest: Cajuns/Jags rivalry: 1993-2003
Yesterday, we looked at how the intense baseball rivalry between South Alabama and Louisiana began. Over the next decade, the rivalry took on a slightly different tone, but remained just as intense.
The two teams met in a three game series in Mobile in 1993. Once again, the games did not count in the conference standings. South Alabama won all three. With Ramos and Lieber both gone, the tense atmosphere abated somewhat. The two teams met again in the first round of the conference tournament, with USA winning, 9-3. Lamar won the tournament, USA got a regional bid and the Cajuns finished with a losing record.
In 1994,, the teams did not meet. Neither team advanced to an NCAA Regional, even though the Jaguars won their divison and the Cajuns were co-champions of theirs. USL went two and out in the SBC tournament and that, combined with a very soft non conference schedule which included fourteen non-division I games, left the Cajuns at home despite a 42-15 record.
Before the 1995 season, Mike Boulanger resigned as head coach and left a mess. The Cajuns were headed to probation for violations under the former coach. Tony Robichaux was hired to take over the program. Robichaux, personality wise and discipline-wise, was the antithesis of Boulanger. For the 1995 season, the Sun Belt also decided that there would be no divisions and everyone would play everyone in a three game series. The Cajuns and Jags played on the final weekend, with South Alabama winning all three, by scores of 5-4, 8-4 and 6-4. The Cajuns, as part of their probation, were not eligible to play in the conference tournament. Lamar won the tournament. Regular season champion Jacksonville and USA got at-large regional bids, the first time that the SBC received three bids since the realignment of the league in 1992.
In 1996, the Cajuns, still down a scholarship because of probation, finished eight games under .500. The Cajuns opened conference play in Mobile in bitterly cold conditions, and Robichaux got his first real indoctrination into the rivarly. The Cajuns lost all three games, including the 13-inning opener on Friday, by scores of 4-3, 3-2 and 5-4. After the third and final game, the Jaguars got together and chanted “one run…one run…one run.” Robichaux said nothing, but was incensed. USA and New Orleans got regional bids that year.
In 1997, the Cajuns got back to full strength, scholarship-wise. The Cajuns and Jaguars met the first weekend in April. After dropping their first conference series at Lamar, the Cajuns went on a tear and were 11-2 in the league when the Jags came to town. South Alabama won the first game of the series, 8-6. But the Cajuns won the next game 11-10, which finally snapped the seventeen game losing streak to the Jaguars. The Cajuns also won game three, 7-3 for their first-ever series win over the Jaguars.
The Cajuns won their first SBC championship that year, beating the Jaguars by five games. The conference tournament was scheduled to be held in Jacksonville, but the Dolphins didn’t qualify. The Cajuns, as regular season champions, were offered the tournament and quickly accepted. The Cajuns and USA met in the winners bracket final, with South Alabama shutting out the Cajuns 5-0. But the Cajuns got a hard-fought 6-5 win over Arkansas State to get another shot at the Jaguars. They won 12-9, setting up a winner take all final. Both teams threw their aces, Jason Norton for USA and Trey Poland for USL. Both were pitching on two days rest. It was a classic. Norton and Poland threw up zeros and it was scoreless in the bottom of the seventh. With a runner at third and two outs, Andy Sutley laid down a perfect bunt down the third base line to give the Jags a 1-0 lead. Poland was furious. The Jags broke the game open in the next inning and won the tournament title. Both teams went to a regional.
In 1998, the two teams met in the next to last weekend, tied for first place. The Jags won a hard fought game one, 5-3, with Norton out-dueling Phil Devey. In the fifth inning of game two, Justin Hemme hit a home run to put the Cajuns up 3-1. As he rounded the bases, Coach Steve Kittrell started screaming at his players, “Did you see what he did? He stared in our dugout!” Hemme later denied it, but Kittrell’s tirade fired up his team and they went on to win, 10-3. The Cajuns won the final game, but the damage had been done. South Alabama won the title by one game. At the tournament in Mobile, the Cajuns beat the Jaguars 11-4 and went on to win their only tournament championship.
In 1999, Jacksonville, Lamar and Texas-Pan American were gone. Florida International joined the league. The teams played an unbalanced schedule, playing some teams twice and others once. It was decided by drawing and the Cajuns and Jags played only one series, in Mobile. The two teams were in a fight for first place and South Alabama swept the series, winning two of the games by one run. The third win clinched the title for USA. FIU won the tournament in New Orleans’ Zephyr Stadium. Both the Cajuns and Jags got at large bids, with the Cajuns advancing to the newly-formed Super-Regional. It was the first year of the 64 team tournament. Had the field not been expanded, the Cajuns may not have gotten a bid that year.
The year 2000 was a season of firsts in the Cajuns/Jags series. For the first time, the teams met twice in the regular season. For the first time, the Cajuns got a series sweep, beating the Jags in three games in Lafayette. And, also for the first time, the Cajuns won a series in Mobile, beating the Jaguars twice after losing on Friday night. We all know what happened after that. South Alabama finished an uncharacteristic fifth in the league, but won the conference tournament, giving the Sun Belt four teams in the NCAA Tournament.
One of them wound up in Omaha.
In 2001 the Cajuns won the season series again, beating the Jaguars two of three. But Louisiana lost seven of their final nine conference games and failed to qualify for the conference tournament in Lafayette. South Alabama defeated newcomer Middle Tennessee to win the conference tournament after the two teams tied for the regular season title.
In 2002, South Alabama beat the Cajuns two out of three in Mobile, the last by a 4-3 score which propelled the Jags to the regular season title. The Cajuns finished second, two games out of first. After going 0-2 in the conference tournament, the Cajuns held their breath on selection day, especially after New Mexico State upset the Jags in the tournament finals. But the Cajuns got their bid and the Belt sent four teams to postseason.
In 2003, the Cajuns got off to a terrible start. Included in that start was a ten-game losing streak and the Cajuns at one time were 7-21. But the Cajuns went on a tear and battled back, and as the final weekend of the season arrived, the Cajuns found themselves just one game out of first place. And who were they playing? Yep. The South Alabama Jaguars. The Cajuns needed to win the series to win the title. That wouldn’t necessarily give the Cajuns an NCAA berth, but no conference regular season champion from the Sun Belt had ever been left out of postseason since 1994. The Jaguars won game one 7-1, and led game two 7-6. But the Cajuns loaded the bases with one out in the ninth, and had their best hitter, Corey Coles at the plate.
What happened next just added to the lore of the rivalry.
You may remember that the old infield at Tigue Moore Field had a terrible dip behind third base. Coles hit a liner just over the head of third baseman Kevin Sytko, landing in that dip. Two runs scored. Cajuns win.
Except the home plate umpire called it foul. There was probably no way he ever saw the ball actually hit the ground, his vision obscured by the dip. First year third base coach, the normally soft spoken John Szefc, went ballistic and was ejected. Sytko, who worked in the sports information department while earning his master’s degree, insists to this day that the umpire got the call right.
Sytko and the umpire were the only ones in the ball park that day that were in agreement. Coles hit into a double play on the next pitch, the Jaguars won the championship and dogpiled at Tigue Moore. The Cajuns won on Sunday but the damage was done. Despite a remarkable run after a miserable start, the Cajuns finished 30-30 and out of the postseason.
Over Robichaux’s first nine seasons as head coach, the rivalry had taken a different tone. While just as intense, it became a rivalry built on respect, rather than hatred. But that didn’t mean the teams were getting together for dinner. The wins were just as sweet…the losses just as bitter.