Five out of eight is a particularly impressive percentage in any sport or endeavor, and especially in the most difficult game of baseball. But in the context of the Louisiana High School State Baseball Championship Tournament staged in Sulphur, the story line for Southwest Louisiana was one out of five.
That number 1 is pretty important too, and I will get back to that.
You see, eight regional prep teams advanced to the state semi-final games, which is impressive no matter how you cut and dice baseball numbers and stats.
Of those eight, this region put five teams in the state’s largest division championship games — Class 1-A through 5-A — and you can’t do any better than that.
Sulphur tangled with Central in the 5-A championship. DeRidder battled Benton in the Class 4-A title game. Iota advanced to the finals against Berwick in Class 3-A. Welsh faced Loreauville in the 2-A championship. And Merryville matched up against Delta Charter for the Class 1-A crown.
The one pertains to Merryville from Beauregard Parish, which, in the end, was the only regional team to score a championship victory, with a 6-3 win over Delta.
The Panthers, seeded way down at No. 11 with a 14-16 overall record, were the Little Engine That Could through the playoffs and into championship weekend.
Merryville was the underdog and lower-seeded team every time they stepped between those post-season lines. But they just kept winning all the way to their first state baseball championship.
I can’t confirm this, but rumor was Merryville head coach David Ford had the theme music from Rocky playing on every bus trip in the state playoffs.
Three local teams — Kinder in 2-A, Grand Lake in 1-A and Pitkin in Class B — were eliminated in the semifinals. That left the fabulous five of Sulphur, DeRidder, Iota, the Welsh Greyhounds and Merryville playing for top trophies.
No wonder Sulphur’s McMurry Park was busting at the seams with overflow crowds. The brackets had our local geography covered from the North, South, East and West. Those yellow school buses were busy crisscrossing I-10 and I-210.
Our region of the state may have claimed only one state championship, but the depth of local teams in the field, and the quality of competitive rosters, far outshined any other corner of Louisiana.
Sam Houston head coach Chad Hebert guided his Broncos to a No. 2 seeding in Class 5-A after posting one of the program’s best seasons with 34 wins. Sam Houston competed in the state’s toughest district from top to bottom in 3/5-A, finishing in a three-way tie for the district title with Barbe and Sulphur.
Hebert, who has battled some of the top teams outside this region, besides having to match up against the likes of the Bucs, Tors and Lafayette, has a unique perspective on the baseball riches of the bayou state and claims the Lake Charles area is the epicenter of the sport.
“I think this is the baseball hub, honestly, in the state. With my kids growing up playing in the middle of these tournament ball leagues, I get to see a lot of these teams, and there are many very good teams spread out over the Lake Charles and Moss Bluff area.”
Anyone who even remotely follows the high school game in this region — or the state, for that matter — knows of the dynastic type of program built over the years by coach Glenn Cecchini at Barbe. The Bucs have won nine Class 5-A state titles under Cecchini, who also has a Gold Medal in the World Cup coaching Team USA, and was honored as All USA Coach of the Year as well.
Barbe fell to this year’s eventual 5-A state champion Central Wildcats in the semi-finals by a score of 10-5. But their many rivals in the state aren’t shedding many tears for the Bucs. They know Barbe was a young team and will return its top three pitchers and seven position players next season.
Sam Houston was also driven by youth up and down the roster this season, which means the Broncos will have experienced talent back in 2019. Most of their position players will return, along with top pitchers Kyle Bartley and reliever Marcus Mott.
Sulphur will lose the most talent, with nine seniors graduating, with a few of those headed to collegiate teams, including pitcher Will Dion to McNeese and Connor Cooke to UL-Lafayette.
The Tors, guided by first-year head coach Sam Moore, gutted out a three-hour, nine-inning, 4-3 nail-biter over Sam Houston in the semi-finals. They came back the next night before another sell-out crowd to try to deny Central a second straight 5-A state crown.
Dominant pitching, great defense, and base-running mistakes by both teams was the story line through three innings. Then came the top of the fourth, when eighth-seeded Central strung together three straight base hits and took a 3-0 lead.
Sulphur came achingly close several times late in the game, appearing as if they might push a few runs across, but only to leave runners stranded (11 left on base in total). Wildcats pitcher Hunter Arnold kept his cool and showed his moxie on the mound, making big pitches in tense spots to put out any Sulphur threat.
Those base-running errors, a throw to home that negated a possible Sulphur run and the inability to get a needed hit with men in scoring position all led to a 4-0 title game loss.
Sulphur’s first state baseball title will have to wait, while Central now has back-to-back crowns and their seventh in school history. Under Moore’s experienced tutelage, this Sulphur program will be in contention again next season, as will Cechinni’s Bucs, Kinder, Welsh and Sam Houston.
Many of the successful teams, in particular the ones in Lake Charles, Sulphur and Moss Bluff, are extensions of well-coached and talent-laden Little League and tournament traveling clubs that are many and well-organized in the region.
Coach Hebert sees it first-hand, as a significant number of volunteer and tournament coaches are showing up at state coaching conferences and meetings to learn techniques and expand their base of knowledge. Hebert says many of his players already have a solid foundation of the fundamentals before they get to his level at the prep 5-A ranks. There’s a bit of fine tuning and a few lessons on strategy. But according to Hebert, most of his time is spent on interpersonal coaching and establishing a winning culture.
“Nowadays, the key to success in high school baseball and athletics in general is managing the personalities and personal relationships you have with the players,” says Hebert. “They play so much baseball now before they even get to me, you aren’t going to tell them anything they don’t already know about the game.”
T-Ball, coach pitch, Little League, Daddy Ball, tournament teams, baseball camps, private hitting and pitching lessons. Baseball in Southwest Louisiana 365. It all adds up to having eight area clubs in the LHSAA State Tournament chasing down trophies; a significant number of Division 1 collegiate signees; and even a lucky few moving on to Major League teams and organizations.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 nightly, Monday through Sunday evenings, at 9 pm; broadcast on Suddenlink channel 4.