The seventh annual Urban Invitational got underway on Friday night with two games at separate Louisiana locations. Southern University began its season with a 7-5 victory over rival Grambling State, and Louisiana State University took a 2-0 win over the University of New Orleans.
Southern, which has played in every edition of the Urban Invitational, got to host a game in the tourney for the first time Friday. The tourney was designed to highlight baseball programs at historically black colleges and universities, and few have been better than Southern.
Southern, coached by Roger Cador for the last three decades, has won 14 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and has advanced to the NCAA tournament eight times. Cador's team played crisply on Friday, and he said he was pleased to have the game on his home turf.
"We played our old nemesis, Grambling, and we were able to win, so I guess that's the good thing," said Cador when reached by phone. "Anytime you play on TV is good, and the city of New Orleans, specifically, is beginning to get more and more African-American kids playing baseball. We have some really good athletes in New Orleans, so maybe we'll be able to get some of them."
Southern's current roster has just 10 players from Louisiana, which is an indicator of the program's ability to recruit nationwide. But with the advent of the new Urban Youth Academy in New Orleans, Cador knows that the environment for local recruiting can only improve.
Stephen Wallace, who grew up in Covina, Calif., led Southern's hitters with a 4-for-4 performance and three RBIs. Six players scored in the victory. Southern's bullpen allowed two earned runs in the ninth inning, but Grambling State's comeback fell a bit short.
Southern rapped 12 hits and played cleanly in the field, and that turned out to be the difference in the game. Grambling State made three errors en route to the loss.
"We didn't make any mistakes, which is always good," said Cador. "We didn't make any errors. We pitched well in spots. So I'm relatively pleased, but there's always room for improvement."
A few of Southern and Grambling's players will participate in a free instructional clinic at the Urban Youth Academy on Saturday morning, and then the teams will meet again at Wesley Barrow Stadium. LSU and UNO, meanwhile, will play again on Saturday at Zephyr Field.
Cador, whose team has produced several big league draftees, including former All-Star Rickie Weeks, is most proud of his program's success at graduating its players. Cador's profile page on the Southern website includes the following quote, which speaks to his proudest accomplishment as coach.
"It's the approximate 80 percent graduation rate. It's the people I've been able to help and grow with. It's the kids society had given up on as a lost cause, and we turned it around and worked it out together."
LSU, a six-time national champion, got its season started on the right foot Friday. Aaron Nola pitched six shutout innings for the Tigers, and shortstop Alex Bregman had two hits and an RBI in the victory. LSU scored once in the third inning and once in the sixth.
LSU and UNO are competing in the tourney for the first time, and Grambling State is participating in the Urban Invitational for its third time in seven years. The New Orleans UYA will host a college fair from 11-1:30 CT on Saturday, stressing the way education can change the community.
LSU coach Paul Mainieri, reached after his game, said that he was thrilled to be a part of the Urban Invitational. Mainieri said his program has benefited a lot from Louisiana talent over the years, and he saluted Major League Baseball's effort to renew the inner-city community's interest in the game.
And in his case, Friday was special for another reason. Mainieri, who played at UNO, was facing off against his mentor and former coach, Ron Maestri. Maestri's first coaching stint at UNO went from 1970-84, and he returned to the dugout Friday, but couldn't manage a win against LSU.
"I don't really enjoy competing against close friends like that, because if you win, you just don't get much enjoyment out of it," said Mainieri, who led LSU to a College World Series title in 2009. "And certainly you don't want to lose either. I'll be glad when tomorrow is over because Ron Maestri is such a dear friend of mine. I care about him so much and want to be able to pull for them in every game."
The third day of the tournament will feature a pair of games at LSU's Alex Box Stadium, and both will be televised live on MLB Network. Southern will face off against UNO at noon CT on Sunday, and Grambling and LSU will play the final game of the tournament at 4.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com.