Jacque Jones has played baseball at USC for less than two years, but he already ranks as one of the Trojans' all-time best at making people stand and take notice.
Last May in the South Regional at Baton Rouge, La., he hit three home runs in a championship-game loss to LSU. The boisterous capacity crowd at Alex Box Stadium was so taken with his performance and personality that it gave him a standing ovation.
LSU Coach Skip Bertman, who will manage the 1996 Olympic team, also was impressed. While other coaches downplayed Jones' chances of making the Olympic team, Bertman gave the 5-foot-10, 165-pound outfielder an endorsement that resulted in an invitation to last fall's U.S. Olympic baseball trials and this summer's training camp.
"I wanted to make sure he was invited," Bertman said. "Other coaches were not as easily impressed because Jacque is not especially big or especially fast.
"He's just one of those guys that can pull it all together when it counts."
With 22 games left in the regular season, the 16th-ranked Trojans are counting on Jones to help them reach the NCAA tournament. The 11-time national champions are 22-15 overall, 7-8 in the Pacific 10 Conference Southern Division, entering a three-game series against Arizona State that begins Friday at Dedeaux Field.
Jones is batting .355 with three home runs and 23 runs batted in for a team that has won five of six games, including a victory over top-ranked Cal State Fullerton last week.
"I'm not going to lie, I think about the Olympics all the time," Jones said. "But I know a lot of things are going to have to happen for me to get there, so my first goal is to help us win a national championship. And I think you could say that I've been pretty consistent for most of this season."
The USC record book indicates as much. Jones etched a place for himself in Trojan lore by hitting in 28 consecutive games, a streak that ended last Sunday against California at Berkeley. Jones broke the record of 26 set by Tim Tolman in 1978, the last year the Trojans reached the World Series.
"Anyone who plays baseball knows that getting a hit in that many games in a row is almost impossible," said Trojan outfielder Geoff Jenkins, a preseason All-American who is expected to be chosen in the first round of this year's draft. "When you think about guys like Fred Lynn and Mark McGwire and all of those guys who have come through here, for Jacque to have the longest hitting streak is pretty impressive."
Said Jones: "There was a game against San Diego State and a game against Santa Barbara when it came down to my last at-bat and I got a hit. Even in the game that the streak ended, I hit the ball hard all day. I've got no complaints."
Neither does USC Coach Mike Gillespie, one of the few major college coaches to pursue Jones when he was starring for San Diego High in football and baseball. Gillespie recruited Jones at the urging of Joe Devillar, an assistant high school coach who called the USC baseball office incessantly with updates on Jones.
"The guy was relentless," Gillespie said. "And in retrospect, we're glad he was."
Jones made an immediate impression on his USC teammates and coaches with an affable, outgoing personality and quick wit. And it didn't take long to make an impact in the lineup--he homered in his first at-bat and started his career with a seven-game hitting streak.
"I went on a little tear at the start of last season and thought, 'Hey, the college game is pretty easy,' " Jones said. "Then I went into a slump and reality set in."
Jones hit only .253 with no home runs and 11 RBIs in 29 Pac-10 games.
Then came the regional.
"I guess I was in the zone," he said.
Jones was 12 for 22 with four doubles, four homers and 15 RBIs in five games at Baton Rouge. The LSU fans, among the most caustic and enthusiastic in college baseball, embraced him for his hustle and style.
"Our fans are pretty picky," Bertman said. "But the way Jacque performed and the way he carried himself won them over."
Jones finished the season as the Trojans' third-leading hitter at .335 and was named Freshman All-American by Baseball America. He played for Fairbanks in the Alaska League last summer and undertook an intensive conditioning program in the fall.
The work appears to have paid off.
Jones has combined with juniors Jenkins and Walter Dawkins to give USC arguably the most talented outfield in college baseball. He said the Trojans are primed for a run at a national championship, and that he is ready to make his Olympic dreams come true.
"I know I'm really going to have to hit for our team to reach its goal and for me to reach my personal goals," Jones said. "I'm ready for that challenge. I just want to keep showing people what I can do."