After winning the SWAC Western division title for three straight years, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Golden Lions' (15-30,10-14) baseball club took a step back this season, finishing fifth in the West.
The top four teams from the Western and Eastern divisions qualify for the SWAC tournament, but for the first time since 2012, the Golden Lions won't be participants. UAPB was just one game away from tournament play.
A make-up game between the Texas Southern Tigers and the Southern Jaguars determined UAPB's fate. UAPB needed Texas Southern to defeat Southern in order to win the tiebreaker for the fourth seed. When news hit that the club wouldn't advance to the post-season tournament, they were devastated, according to head coach Carlos James.
"We were actually at practice getting ready to go to the tournament when we found out," James said. "It was bad, it really was. It's what you expect from the seniors, and the seniors took it hard because that was it for them. On the other hand, we put ourselves in that position. We had a chance to control our own destiny and we didn't get it done. I take responsibility as a coach, and that's what I'm suppose to do. I apologize to the fans of Golden Lion nation. We're going to get this thing back rolling next year. This is a learning experience, and what I've learned in the past is when you go through something bad, something good is on the horizon."
Winning has become the norm around the Golden Lions' baseball program over the past several seasons, which is why sitting at home during the SWAC tournament feels wrong.
This is "very much so a down year," James said of his club's season. "We underachieved greatly, and we all know it. Our record definitely didn't reflect the talent that we had on the roster. The thing about it is we had good individual talent, but we weren't a team. It falls back on me to make sure that won't happen again."
In total, the Golden Lions had 12 seniors, many of whom will finish their careers with three division titles under their belts. James made it known what they've meant to the program.
"Anytime you can leave with three division championships you have nothing to hang your head about," James said. "We didn't finish how they wanted, but they were very instrumental in building the program upward. We'll still be a program to reckon with because of what they brought to the table, and they have that to be proud about."
After the final practice, James and his team began looking forward to the off season and to next year. James already has things in mind that he knows his guys must improve upon in order to get back to the top.
"We had our end of the year meeting after practice Sunday, and it ended Monday," James said. "The overall statement was that this won't happen next year. We have to be more of a team-oriented type group . It will be a tough camp from day one when they get back, and that's a promise. I told them we must lead more by example instead of a lot of talking. More examples, less talking."
From what they lacked this season, it's obvious what the focal points in recruiting will be. James and staff will look to shore up their pitching. Also, they're losing key outfielders, along with an infielder that will need to be replaced.
"The main thing in recruiting is we have to get better pitching," James said. "That plagued us over the entire year. Our main focus is getting quality arms in that can hold somebody down. We had three guys that had to sit out this year that ate us up in practice. We have another guy that I think if we had him this year we could have won 20 more games. We're in good shape, and we just have to [shore] up our recruiting. We're losing four outfielders, and we'll try to bring in three or four to add with Kacey Higgins. Shortstop is another area that is important for us as well."
The Golden Lions are looking at plenty of talent around the state. Three our four of the guys that they'll look to bring in will be from area schools, which James sees as a plus.
"It's good to have home grown players because they bring a sense of pride along with them," James said. "They know exactly what that UAPB across their chest stands for."