It was the biggest out in Dillard University’s burgeoning baseball history.
That's why as soon as the fly ball landed in left fielder Manny Taveras’ glove Sunday evening, he stuck the ball in his back pocket and made a mad dash toward the dog pile that was about to take place.
Taveras wanted to make sure that ball was delivered to Trennis Grant, the coach who sold the Dillard baseball players on this dream and then made it a reality.
A dream that started from scratch 15 months ago all of a sudden came true with a celebration on an infield in Jackson, Mississippi, about 30 miles away from where Grant was born and raised.
Dillard baseball players, in the school's first season of fielding a team, not only raised a Gulf Coast Athletic Conference championship trophy Sunday. They also raised the expectations.
Forget about taking baby steps. Dillard needed just one year to climb to the top of the GCAC.
“Nobody really believed that we were going to win the championship in our first year,” Grant said. “I don’t think the kids even believed it at first. But I kept saying to them, ‘We can do this.’ ”
Grant got his players to believe, just like he convinced them they should come play for a school that had never played a baseball game before.
There was no Dillard baseball history to show the players he was trying to recruit. There were no baseball alumni to tell those recruits about.
All he really had was a whole lot of faith and a three-word message: “Let’s make history.”
History was made when Taveras recorded that final out to cap off Dillard’s 8-3 victory over Rust College.
The Bleu Devils entered the tournament as the No. 2 seed. They fell into the loser’s bracket and had to beat top-seeded Rust twice on Sunday to win the tournament and punch their ticket to the NAIA tournament. Dillard will find out where it’s headed for that tournament early next week.
For now, they are soaking in the history they made.
Pitcher Jorge Guerra — who transferred from Mountain View College, a junior college in Dallas — was named tournament MVP as well as GCAC pitcher of the year. Not bad for a player who had never even heard of Dillard this time a year ago.
“I knew it was a big risk, for sure, but I saw the vision coach Grant had,” Guerra said. “It wasn’t about just me. It was about building that foundation for the next generation, paving a pathway for them. I was hoping I would be a part of it. So winning it was an incredible moment."
The Bleu Devils will carry a 22-28 record into the NAIA tournament. They can thank a tough non-conference schedule for that overall mark. The pre-conference schedule included games against traditional NAIA powers such as Loyola, William Carey and Mobile.
“I scheduled all of those opponents for a reason,” Grant said. “Those games were the turning point for us. When we finished those games, I remember thinking, ‘Man it’s going to be trouble for teams when we get into conference play' because we were battle-tested.”
They ended up going 13-5 in conference play.
Not only was it Dillard’s first time fielding a team but it was also Grant’s first time as a head coach. Grant previously had worked as an assistant at Southern University, Alabama A&M, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and his first job at Hendrix College in Arkansas. Other than the two years at Alabama A&M, all of the other jobs were as a volunteer.
But he was hungry to be a head coach and just as hungry to see Dillard succeed in the first season.
“I could see he really wanted to build something and he had a plan and I just stuck with it,” said Taveras, who played high school ball in New Orleans at De La Salle. “In our first meeting he told us we were going to win a conference championship. Even when the year started off rough, we could tell he was taking the steps to mold us into a championship team. He is going to be your best friend off the field. On the field, you almost don’t want to like him because he pushes you so hard. That’s just how much greatness he expects from you and what makes him such a good coach.”
Making Sunday even sweeter for Grant was that the game was played at Smith-Wills Stadium, just a short drive from his hometown of Canton. His parents and other family members were able to see him live out his dream on a field he had played on in both high school and college.
“That made it extra special,” Grant said. “I was once the hard headed kid in Canton. I ‘ve come a long way from how I grew up. Look where we are now. So it was an honor to go home and be a part of that.”
It was even more of an honor for him to bring that conference championship trophy back down I-55 to New Orleans. That trophy and the game ball will sit in Grant’s office for a little while, a constant reminder of what he and the Bleu Devils accomplished in their first year.
It’ll also be motivation for the future of Dillard baseball. That’s both the immediate future in the upcoming NAIA tournament and for the second year and beyond.
“God gave me a vision, I created a culture and they drove it,” Grant said. "I always tell them that, 'I have to create a culture and you all have to drive it.' We made sure they understood there is a standard. We set the bar high. We reached that bar. But at the same time, let’s not stop. Why not just keep going?”