All eyes on baseball

Jared Mitchell is one of the hottest center field prospects in the NCAA, now entering his third season as a starter in the outfield for the Tigers. Yet for the first time, with his Major League Baseball draft stock rising to new heights, the New Iberia-native has chosen to utilize his talents solely on the diamond this season.

One of two Tigers that hopes to suit up under the lights of both Tiger Stadium and Alex Box, both Mitchell and sophomore Chad Jones have grown accustomed to the balancing act that their lives have become.


Jones, a standout during stints at nickel back in his first two seasons on the Tiger defense, looked the part of one of the premier up and coming defensive backs in the Southeastern Conference.


Yet, Mitchell was forging a different path.


Mitchell played in 52 games for head coach Paul Mainieri in 2008, batting .297 with 10 doubles, one triple, six homeruns, 29 RBI, 44 runs scored and 16 steals. He became the cornerstone of the Tiger outfield, starting 24 games in left field and 15 games in center.


His sophomore season on the diamond was a key element in the Tiger's magical run to Omaha, while Jones' run with the team ended abruptly after academic issues drove him back to the football team full time.


Now, both are back with the baseball team, yet each singing a different tune.


Jones is looking to make the squad by the February 19 cut deadline, and with the Tigers already working on a 35-man roster after the loss of senior pitcher Jordan Brown, his spot would strike the team once more when he misses games after the start of spring football practice on March 12.


While Jones' status on the team moving forward remains uncertain, Mainieri is resting a bit easier with the news that came from his running mate. Fortunately for the skipper, Mitchell will be on for the long haul.


"I decided to come in here for baseball and stick it out," Mitchell said. "With me not leaving for practice or summer football or anything regarding football, I am able to put all that behind me and focus on helping this team win. I am not sure if I will go back, but we will see. I am in a good place right now."


After a junior season on the gridiron that saw him catch just seven passes for 87 yards, it was time for Mitchell to change directions, which he realized as the decision to focus his efforts on one sport only during the spring and summer.


Entering the season without the weight of the Bayou Bengal football program on him, Mitchell said that he envisions the path being a lot smoother than ever before.


"I guess you could say that it has been easier this year because in the back of my mind I know that I don't have to go back to football," he said. "It has been a little easier, sure, but also more exciting."


Mitchell said that the decision to forgo the balancing act between the sports came with age, and he is now in a position where he feels more comfortable than ever.


"When I was younger, I would tell myself that I could always handle both sports," he said. "I would tell myself that I can handle it physically and all that. It was other things that got me. There were times like last summer where because of the baseball season running long, I only got to go play down at the Cape for a week and a half before I was back at football.


"It is something that you notice as you get older, and it is starting to hit me that I can do just one thing and be good," added Mitchell. "It was something that I needed to notice, and I am happy with where I am at."


Mitchell said that last summer's run to the College World Series sparked an old feeling inside him, and that same feeling left him itching to get back to the diamond throughout last year's football season.


"It was very special to close the Box out right and go through the end of that last season," he said. "It was something I will never forget in my life, especially being from around here and making things happen like that. The 23-game win streak and the whole back end of that season might have been the most fun I have had in a long time.


"Come from behind wins and the crowd being with us just made it all fun again, because it was what playing baseball is all about," added Mitchell. "No one thought we would make it when we were at the bottom of the SEC and hoping to get to the playoffs, then we went on a winning streak and the next thing we knew we were playing the last possible game that could have been played, and we were in Alex Box."


Mitchell said that he expects the Tigers to pick up exactly where they left off last season, no matter if they were the nation's No. 1 ranked team heading into 2009 or not.


"I think we could be not ranked at all right now, and the confidence that everyone around here would have would still be off the charts," he said. "These guys are confident in their abilities and saw what we can do as a team. With the same guys coming back, it is just ridiculous."


While football might not have worked out exactly as he had planned after leaving the fields of Westgate High, Mitchell's future on the baseball diamond looks brighter than ever.


With hopes of landing in the first round of the MLB draft, not to mention being a staple piece of the nation's top ranked baseball team, Mitchell remains all smiles.


"It has all just been amazing," he said.


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