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FAMU is the feel-good story of the NCAA Tournament

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The NCAA baseball tournament begins this week at 16 regional sites around the country. Among the hosts are traditional baseball powers Miami and Florida State. The Hurricanes are the number five national seed.

The Florida Gators have hosted a regional or two in their time and this year is no exception. Florida is the number four national seed.

All four teams in the Gainesville regional are from Florida with the Florida Atlantic Owls, South Florida Bulls and Florida A&M Rattlers joining the Gators. Of the 64 teams in the tournament, the Rattlers are one of only three making their first appearance ever.

Florida A&M University (FAMU) has a remarkable story, one that should create a large number of well-wishers once they learn of it. Just two years ago, the Rattlers posted a 7-47 record. Against teams outside of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC), they lost 29 of 30.

Following such a momentous debacle, FAMU made the program-changing decision to hire Jamey Shouppe as their coach. They may have conducted a cross-country search, but they found an available Shouppe no further than across Tallahassee.

Shouppe had served as an assistant to Florida State Coach Mike Martin for more than two decades. His divorce from the Seminoles was not messy, but apparently not totally amicable. Neither side will discuss it.

But FSU’s loss was FAMU’s gain. In his first season in 2014, Shouppe’s Rattlers posted a 26-26 record, earning the program some respect and Shouppe the league’s Coach of the Year honor.

For 2015, he brought in former Florida State star right hander Bryan Henry to serve as pitching coach. FAMU pitchers improved their Earned Run Average (ERA) from 5.00 in 2014 to 4.38 in 2015.

The strength of the pitching staff is the bullpen with four relievers posting ERAs under 3.00. Closer Kenny McDonald had 7 saves while Cleveland Westbrook struck out, on average, at least one batter per inning.

This team mixes a little power with a little speed. Third baseman Ryan Kennedy hit six home runs and drove in 34, while outfielder Marlon Gibbs stole 15 bases in 16 attempts.

FAMU had to win the MEAC tournament just to reach .500, but their true reward was to stand among the other 63 teams for the first time vying for a national championship. Their other “reward” was to be paired with the Gators in the Gainesville regional.

The two teams meet at 7:00 p.m. on Friday at McKethan Stadium. They were scheduled to meet on February 17, but the game was cancelled by rain.

Shouppe and FAMU head into the game with a one-game winning streak against the Gators. The Rattlers shocked Florida 4-3 at McKethan on April 23, 2014.

That, of course, means nothing when analyzing the 2015 matchup. Expect Florida to be ready.

We should also expect the Rattlers to not be rattled. Their schedule included three competitive games against South Florida in Tampa and they also defeated North Carolina Central at Boston’s legendary Fenway Park.

I join with the experts to predict the Rattlers will not advance beyond Gainesville. However, if Shouppe can recruit as well as he can apparently coach, things look bright for quality baseball to be played regularly on both sides of Tallahassee.

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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