By BEN JOHNSON
His playing time had increased with each passing season at Northeastern State. He was envisioning an every-day role for the RiverHawks in 2013.
Greg Jackson was going to be NSU’s mainstay in center field.
That all changed in the fall when Kyle Singleton and Cody Robinson transferred from Division I schools. And reality hit home when the RiverHawks’ first lineup card of the season was posted on Feb. 16.
Singleton, from Sam Houston State, was in left field. Trent Wilkins was slotted in center field. Robinson, arriving from Tulane, was the RiverHawks’ right fielder.
In an instant, Jackson became NSU’s fourth outfielder.
“It’s always tough when you know you’re not going to be playing every day,” Jackson said.
That left Jackson with two options: be bitter about the lack of playing time or be a model teammate and be ready when his number is called.
He chose the latter.
“We have a good outfield, a lot of good players that can play,” Jackson said. “I just do what I can when I need to. And whenever they need me, I just have to be ready.”
Jackson went from playing in 26 games his freshman year to 32 (19 of which were starts) during his sophomore campaign. And in 2012, Jackson played in 44 of NSU’s 49 games, starting in all but five of the games that he played in.
This season, Jackson has appeared in 34 games. However, he’s only started 10 contests and only has 47 at-bats to show for it.
That’s OK, Jackson said. He’s embraced his utility role.
“Whatever is best for the team,” said the 5-foot-10, 175-pound switch-hitter. “All we care about is winning. It doesn’t matter if you’re starting or off the bench, you have to be ready.”
Jackson, a former Tahlequah standout, lived up to that statement Sunday against Nebraska Kearney. With the RiverHawks nursing a 7-6 lead in the eighth inning, Jackson pinch hit for Wilkins and deposited a Scott Jameson pitch over the wall for his third home run of the season.
NSU went on to beat the Lopers, 8-6, and take the three-game series, two games to one.
“That was a huge run,” NSU coach Travis Janssen said. “From 7-6 to 8-6, that doesn’t seem like that big of a deal, but that’s a big deal when you’re in the last inning of a tight game.”
The home run was the perfect ending for the hometown product, who may well never get another at-bat in Tahlequah.
“It was awesome,” said Jackson, who hadn’t hit any home runs his first three season with the RiverHawks. “...Being able to hit a home run in my last at-bat here is a pretty special feeling.”
The victory over Nebraska Kearney helped NSU improve to 25-19 overall and 23-18 in Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association play. The RiverHawks’ 25 wins — good enough for sixth in the league right now — matches a season-high for Jackson during his tenure at NSU.
And what an adventurous tenure it has been. Jackson went from being a part of a team that had 23 victories his freshman season to a club that scuffled its way to six wins in 2011.
That brought prompted a coaching chance for the RiverHawks. Janssen replaced Sergio Espinal in June 2011.
“It was different, for sure,” Jackson said, recalling the coaching change. “It’s just different coaching styles, and a lot of different types of players, because of different scouting and things like that.”
Under Janssen last season, NSU posted 25 victories while playing as a NCAA Division II independent. The RiverHawks have matched that win total and are in search of more as the regular season winds down.
“It’s been a wild ride, that’s for sure,” Jackson said of his NSU career. “I’ve been here for possibly the worst record here, and then, possibly, we could have the best team ever here, too. It’s been really cool. I wouldn’t change anything.”
The RiverHawks are set to begin a road trip this week that will take from Emporia State today to Lincoln this weekend in search of possibly a home series in the first round of the MIAA tournament. Five straight wins (two over Emporia State and three against Lincoln) and some losses from Central Oklahoma and Missouri Southern could help NSU secure fourth place in the league standings.
“Top four seeds host (in the MIAA tournament), and the top eight make the field,” Jackson said, “and we’d really like to host. So these two games [against Emporia State] are huge.”
In an effort to dial down the importance on the Emporia State games, Janssen said, “Emporia is the one we’re locked in on right now because it’s the next two games. We’re not really treating them any other way. If we beat Emporia, that would help us in the standings. If we beat Lincoln, that’ll help us in the standings, too. But we’re not trying to put any extra emphasis on (the Emporia State games) or anything.”
As for playing his collegiate career in the same town where he graduated high school, Jackson said it turned out better than he thought it would.
“At first, I didn’t think I would like it,” Jackson said. “But I wouldn’t change anything. It’s been awesome.”