Former Saint weathers horrific USM storm

Published 12:18 am Thursday, February 14, 2013

HATTIESBURG — Jake Winston was unaware of the danger he was in when his mother got in touch with him late Sunday evening.

Winston, a freshman pitcher for the Southern Mississippi baseball team, was watching TV in his dorm room late Sunday afternoon. His parents had visited for the weekend to watch an inter-squad scrimmage, but the Sunday scrimmage was canceled, sending Tam and Beverly Winston home.

“Before they got home, mom started texting me telling me to be safe,” Jake said. “About an hour later, she sent three messages, saying there was a tornado on the ground and she was looking at footage.”

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By that point, Winston’s residential advisor had told everyone in the dorm to come into the hallway. He and his mother were texting back and forth, with his mom wanting to be sure her son was OK.

“They knew about it before I did, and I was right in the middle of it,” Winston said.

Winston’s dorm was not hit by the tornado, but the Olgetree House, an alumni building 300 yards from his dorm, was hit. A church a quarter of a mile away also sustained damage. None of the buildings he has class in, nor the baseball facilities, were damaged, but Winston said it’s still hard to wrap his mind around what happened to Hattiesburg as a whole.

“After it sank in, I really starting thinking about it, that it was something serious,” Winston said. “I could have lost my life, or my teammates could have gotten hurt.”

That’s the last thing that was going through his mind when he was sitting in the hall waiting on the tornado to pass, Winston said.

“That’s one thing you don’t think about in the moment,” he said. “We were laughing and joking in the hallway, and after it stops, you look at the neighborhoods destroyed, the families picking up (debris) and the police and the ambulances going by.

“When you stop and think about it, you’re lucky it didn’t happen to you. It was something I had never experienced, and I wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Winston admitted he never took tornado warnings very seriously growing up.

“You get a tornado warning, and 100 times out of 100, it’s nothing,” Winston said. “That’s how I’ve gone about it all my life. Me and my family, we just keep on watching TV (during tornado warnings).

“This is the first time it’s ever been serious. I’ll take them more seriously now for sure.”

With Hattiesburg sustaining extensive damage, Winston said he and his teammates are using it as motivation to have a strong season.

“We want people to come out to ball games and see a great game every time they come out,” Winston said. “It can kind of take your mind off what happened.”

Winston is currently fighting for a starting position in the Golden Eagles’ rotation. USM opens its season Friday night at home versus Missouri. Winston said he’s aiming to get the start when the team travels to Alabama Feb. 19.

Since he’s a pitcher, Winston said he won’t be doing any hitting this season, which bummed him out at first.

“It’s hard to do both at the Division I level,” Winston said. “It’s overwhelming if you try to do both.”

In doing workouts and inter-squad scrimmages, Winston said the biggest difference between high school and college is the speed of the game.

“If I went back to high school, it might feel like slow motion,” Winston said. “During inter-squad, you’re constantly having to move, and there are so many signs the catcher will give you. It’s so much more technical (than high school).”

The technical aspect is something the Golden Eagle coaches have helped Winston with.

“The first bullpen session I threw, the coaches immediately changed my hands, because I would have an open glove toward second,” Winston said. “If there’s a runner on second, he’d pick up my signs. Now I have to have the glove facing me at all times and have it a little lower.”

When he does finally step on the mound for the first time, Winston said he knows it will be an indescribable experience.

“It’s something I’ve dreamed about my whole life,” Winston said. “I wish I could say what it’s going to feel like, but I won’t know until it actually happens.”