NCAA baseball regional has Shelby County flair

Published 11:25 am Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The 2010 NCAA baseball tournament regional hosted by Auburn University this weekend will have a distinctive Shelby County flair.

The Friday night matchup between the top-seeded Tigers and No. 4 seed Jacksonville State University in the Auburn Regional at Plainsman Park will feature six former Shelby County high school baseball standouts.

Thompson graduate and Jacksonville State senior Austin Lucas will start on the mound for the Gamecocks. Pelham alum Bert Smith, a Jacksonville State senior infielder, is the team’s leading hitter. Fellow Jacksonville State senior and Spain Park graduate Alex Jones is the team’s closer.

Senior pitcher Bill Henke, who graduated from Oak Mountain, also plays for the Gamecocks.

Meanwhile, Oak Mountain graduates Kevin Patterson, the Tigers’ junior designated hitter, and junior relief pitcher Bradley Hendrix will suit up for Auburn.

Auburn will host the Gamecocks in the opening round of the regional June 4 at 6 p.m.

Three Shelby County natives will play instrumental roles for the Gamecocks, who clinched a berth in the NCAA tournament with a 10-8 win over Tennessee Tech in the Ohio Valley Conference championship game May 30.

Jones, a right-handed pitcher, helped Jacksonville State (32-24) clinch the championship as he picked up his sixth save of the season. Jones gave up one run with four strikeouts and a walk in the final four innings, which were interrupted by a two-hour rain delay.

Jacksonville State coach Jim Case, who recruited all three of the Gamecocks’ Shelby County players, praised Jones’ ability to fight through the adverse weather conditions.

“He wanted to finish and he certainly deserved the opportunity to do that,” Case said.

Jones, who features a 3.60 earned run average, said he didn’t put too much pressure on himself with a regional berth on the line in the championship game.

“I just tried not to focus too much on the game, to be honest,” Jones said. “I just tried to tell myself to treat it like any other ball game.”

Jones, who was a member of the Jacksonville State team that played in the Tuscaloosa Regional in 2006, said he’s looking forward to playing in the postseason.

“I got to watch it from the stands in 2006,” Jones said. “I wanted to be in there. I can’t wait to get the opportunity to compete in one.”

Lucas, who played his first two seasons at Wallace State Community College in Hanceville, leads the Gamecocks’ pitching staff with a 6-0 record in 12 starts. The right-handed pitcher features a 4.97 earned run average and has struck out 43 batters in 2010.

Lucas threw 123 pitches in 7 2/3 innings in his last start — a 7-5 Jacksonville State victory over Eastern Illinois in the OVC tournament opener May 27.

Senior Bert Smith, who was named a first-team OVC All-Conference pick at second base for the third consecutive season, leads Jacksonville State with a .371 batting average and 34 stolen bases in 38 attempts. Smith leads the Gamecocks with 86 hits and has driven in 39 runs this season.

Smith, the school’s all-time leader in hits, is the only active Division I player with more than 300 career hits.

Henke has a 6.75 earned run average in 17 appearances in 2010.

On the other side, Patterson has had a breakout season in his third year on the Plains. Patterson features a .307 batting average with 16 home runs and 31 RBIs.

Patterson was recently named a first-team selection on the Southeastern Conference All-Conference team.

Hendrix, meanwhile, has a 5.72 earned run average on the mound in 28 relief innings for the Tigers.

Patterson and Hendrix helped Auburn (40-19) win the SEC West division championship during the regular season. The duo also helped the Tigers return to the NCAA baseball postseason for the first time in five years.

Clemson, the No. 2 seed in the Auburn Regional, will meet No. 3 seed Southern Miss in the other first-round matchup. Southern Miss will feature junior outfielder Justin Diliberto, who graduated from Spain Park and played two seasons at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa.

Diliberto has a .212 batting average with five RBIs in 41 games this season for the Golden Eagles, who played in the NCAA College World Series in 2009.