Dangerous Tigers

Grambling (22-30) has a young coach, a six-game winning streak and a belief that it can play with Arkansas (40-18) today at 2:05 p.m. when the two teams meet in the opening game of the NCAA Regional at Baum Stadium.

Moments after his baseball team finished practice on Thursday afternoon at Baum Stadium, an NCAA Tournament official told Grambling's James Cooper to let his coach know about a ticket procedure.

Thing is, the 28-year-old Cooper – a former minor league player who looks even younger - is the Tigers' head coach.

"We've got a catcher that is a little bit older and I think we might be the only team in the country that our catcher and our head coach might have graduated high school in the same year," said Grambling first baseman Steve Kletke, another player who looks as old or older than his coach. "We joke about that."

Cooper has led Grambling (22-30) to an improbable postseason run – winning six in a row and capturing the SWAC championship last Sunday with a 15-2 win over Alcorn State.

That vaulted the Tigers – who along with Bucknell are the only sub-.500 teams in the 64-team event - into Friday's 2:05 p.m. game with Arkansas (40-18).

The turnaround started when Grambling ended Jackson State's 17-game winning streak in a 15-14 slugfest.

"The guys have started to focus more on the goal and the task at hand," Cooper said. "We got off to a slow start, but we was telling our guys that it is not about the start, it is about the finish.

"With the schedule of baseball, it is more of a marathon than a sprint," Cooper added. "We got our feet up under us, our pitching turned around as well as our defense and our hitters have been swinging the ball also."

The Tigers got a chance to see Baum Stadium Thursday during practice.

"This is by far one of the best fields we have played on this season and we just want to continue to play flawless defense, have good pitching and timely hitting," Cooper said.

To that end, Cooper is not ready to just assume Arkansas will win – either on Friday or the entire tournament.

"We do know that Arkansas has hosted four regionals here in the past and they only made it out of one," Cooper noted. "With all that is being said, just because they are playing at home doesn't mean they are the favorite to win."

Arkansas is pitching T.J. Forrest (7-0) while resting its top two hurlers Drew Smyley (8-1) and Mike Bolsinger (6-4) for later on in the weekend.

Kletke said his team is used to being slighted.

"You know we wouldn't have it any other way," Kletke said. "Everybody has taken us lightly all year. We were picked to finish dead last in the SWAC."

Cooper, a former Grambling standout, played in the Houston Astros minor league system, before returning to Grambling.

"I played with guys like (current Major Leaguers) Hunter Pence, Ben Zobrist – we were all part of the same draft class," Cooper said. "I played a year with them."

"After I decided that my playing days were over, I got back in school and got my master's," Cooper said. "I was a graduate assistant for two years, an assistant last year and I am the head coach this year. It has moved pretty fast."

He got the job in July and believes he has done enough to be kept around.

"I felt that I have," Cooper said. "But from here on out the expectations are going to be nothing less than a SWAC championship and qualifying for the regionals for me. That's the way my athletic director may be looking at it, too. I did it my first year so let's keep it going."

Grambling would normally start SWAC Tournament MVP Adrian Turner (5-5) on the mound, but he is not rested enough per Cooper.

"It doesn't appear to be," Cooper said. "He pitched two games in the tournament, but he hasn't fully gotten his legs and arms back up under him so we might have to go with somebody else."

"It may be Eric Zagone (3-7) or Odingo Davila (7-4), depending on how Turner feels," Cooper said. "He (Turner) may be (in the line-up) – first base or DH'ing," Cooper said.

Grambling does have one Arkansas player on its roster in West Memphis product Justin Kelly, a speedster who has been hampered by a bum ankle lately.

"Justin Kelly is by far the fastest person in our conference and the fastest person on our team," Cooper said. "When he is in the line-up, he is one of the guys that we need to put the bunt down, execute hit and run and also steal bases." Cooper doesn't think his team will be overwhelmed by the setting of Baum Stadium.

"They kind of started comparing it to LSU," Cooper said. "We played there last year on a Tuesday night. It was a mid-week game and they had approximately 6,000 fans out there. That's what they are anticipating on having Friday afternoon also."

Could there be an upset?

"No matter if it was an upset or not, if we don't execute, we won't win," Cooper said. "We have to execute."


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