There’s an NCAA college baseball tournament game to watch at all hours of the day and night over entire weekends. Games are being beamed out by every ESPN channel imaginable, from cozy college towns from Corvallis, Ore., to Lubbock, Texas, on to Conway, S.C. and down to Deland, Fla.
The majority of head coaches whose teams didn’t make the 64-team tournament field are probably off fishing or catching up on Honey Dos at the house. That’s not the case for McNeese head coach Justin Hill.
His Cowboys had a quick and early exit from the Southland Conference Tournament a few weeks ago, losing their first two games and their only path toward earning an NCAA Tournament bid. The season came to an abrupt halt. But the game didn’t stop for Hill.
“I know some coaches are the type that don’t want to see baseball or look at it (if they did not qualify for the NCAA). I’m not one of those. I’ll watch games from 11 o’clock in the morning ‘til midnight every night. For me, it’s therapeutic; and at the same time, it’s a classroom for me. I get to learn. I get to see what other teams are doing. I’m a learner.
“I like to see what other teams are doing; how they do it; because the bottom line is those guys are doing something I want to be doing (playing in the NCAA Tournament), and I want to be able to take a team to do that.”
In the prism of Southland Conference baseball, it’s not about being one of the best 64 teams in the country, Hill says, but being one of the best 32.
The SLC chooses to award its conference tournament champion with an NCAA automatic tournament bid. This year, that honor went to Northwestern State, who eliminated third-seeded San Diego State and had a lead late against LSU before losing to the Tigers in a wild ninth-inning finish in the regional round.
If you won the regular season championship, as Sam Houston State did, you sit on the sidelines hoping the NCAA selection committee will see and respect that accomplishment and record and swing an at-large bid your way. That’s where being one of the elite 32 teams without an automatic bid comes into play.
Even for a small league like the SLC, at-large bids do come around. But they aren’t an annual guarantee, like, say, the SEC getting 8 to 10 teams in the NCAA.
Hill and the Cowboys know that all too well.
McNeese won the grind of the conference championship in 2017, but failed to win the post-season tournament. The Cowboys were left out of the NCAA field despite a school record-tying 22 league wins.
I’ve always contended the regular season champion should get the automatic bid because they’ve proven to be the best over the long stretch of many games as opposed to getting hot and winning a weekend tournament.
Hill feels differently, and his argument hinges on the Southland securing more than just one automatic invite. “I think its right what our conference decided to do of having the conference tournament champion getting the automatic bid because it gives our 13-team league more opportunities for multiple teams to make post-season. We’ve had multiple teams in the NCAA the last six out of 8 years I think.”
His premise is if the regular season champ got the NCAA invite, and the SLC Tournament champ is, say, a team with an unimpressive sub-.500 record, then that club won’t get an invite despite winning the league tournament. More often than not, the Southland will have only one team in the NCAA field.
I get that point, but counter it with the notion that the Southland should be sending its best overall team.
Hill admits this set-up didn’t help his McNeese team in 2017, nor the 2018 regular season champion Bearkats. But, he says, “we always want to change the rules that benefit you and your team the most.”
And speaking of his team this season, Hill paused before saying it was “a challenge and a struggle.”
McNeese’s 25-33 overall record and 15-15 conference mark was a significant drop-off from the championship season of 2017. The reasons for it vary.
The loss of starting pitching and big arms out of the bullpen has to be No. 1. Throw in the slow 2-11 start, and a difficult schedule dotted with NCAA tournament qualifiers, and you have the set-up for what was an up and down season.
“I think this team really struggled to overcome that (2-11 start). When you get beat up a little bit, that can become your mindset. It wasn’t just one person; instead it was a collective unit. That part was really hard. But I will give them credit — they never quit, they never shut down. We just never could deliver the punch to break through,” said Hill a few days after the team season ended.
Hill called 2018 “a very unforgiving season” because the team just didn’t get many breaks. But, he added, “we didn’t make our own breaks either.”
Inconsistent starting pitching stood out as a nagging problem. No starter had a winning record, and no one pitcher rose to the top of the class. The twins Aidan and Grant Anderson, with 5-6 and 4-7 records respectively, had good stretches at times and competed hard. But there were innings in which the opposition piled on with eight or nine runs, putting the Pokes in deep holes.
Baseball is dominated by numbers, stats and averages — more so than any other sport. Some top-line numbers had McNeese with a team batting average of .267; staff ERA of 5.40; fielding percentage of .963; team slugging of .402 with a total of 48 home runs. There was a non-conference record of 10-18, a home record of 14-17 and the team was 11-14 on the road.
Hill spent time after season’s end evaluating and dissecting the data. He revealed the one set of numbers that probably no one else would think to look at or focus on, but that he found the most important.
“We had eight guys with over 50 starts. So basically, your everyday lineup. We only had one guy with more than 65 innings. What that goes to show you is a lack of depth. Basically eight of the nine guys that played played every single day. They were not able to take days off. If they were struggling or in a slump or banged up, we were never able to give a guy a day off. We were never able to try something else or do some different with the line-up from a personnel stand point.
“We had a mix of really older guys, and some guys that were not quite ready. At one point, Joe Provenzano, our new career record-holder for most hits, was, like, 1 for 32 early on. What coach in his right mind would take him out of the line-up? Some guys have great years. Some guys don’t. That’s baseball. The hitter of the year in the conference last year (Shane Selman) really didn’t have the season that was up to par for his standards.
“But I have to do a better job preparing them. I have to do my part, too.”
The game begins and ends from the mound, and Hill thought his bullpen this season was “outstanding,” even though he was forced to take his best closer in Grant Anderson and make him a starter.
The starters did not draw the same accolades from the head coach. The theme of inconsistency came up often when he was discussing his starting pitching. “We were not very consistent from a starter’s standpoint. And when you do that, you get behind the 8 ball. Some of it was from a consistency of play. You look at ERAs or how many innings they pitched or how many starts. One time, you might get seven innings from a guy. The next time, you only get three. We just were not consistent.”
Looking back on a year that was a long, difficult grind of a season, this team, minus some starting arms and one or two productive bats, was still in the chase for a regular season championship, sitting two and a half games behind league-leading Sam Houston in the final weekend of April. But then came that 0-3 home series against those same BearKats. It was a gut punch the Cowboys did not get over, according to Hill.
Maybe to a fault, Hill is always up front and brutally honest when he’s assessing his team and program overall. After five years as head coach, he says, “there is not a part of our program that we won’t turn over a rock right now.”
Practice schedules, weight training, player development, pitching, hitting and academics will all be evaluated in search of improvement. Hill says 90 percent of his process will remain exactly the same, but it’s that other 10 percent Hill will look at and ask what the team can do better. That will include looking at himself in the mirror.
The Cowboys’ roster for next season may undergo a significant overhaul, depending on the Major League Baseball draft and how many McNeese players are selected and which ones will decide to sign professional contracts.
Hill cited a number of possible draftees from his roster, including Shane Selman and pitchers Grant Anderson and Bryan King and Carson Maxwell. “There are a number of guys who may be back or many who won’t be. If those are guys are back, we have a lot better chance, because we will have a hungry team on our hands.”
Going into his sixth season as head coach, Hill says 18 to 20 conference wins are within his control, as is the prospect of being among the Top 3 to 4 in the league. A season of 35 to 40 victories is harder to come by year in and year out.
The veteran coach points to what he calls, “a lot of big personalities out there and a very competitive baseball environment” within a few hours’ drive. He points to the University of Houston, Louisiana Tech, UL-Lafayette and, of course, LSU.
“I can build a 40-win schedule and be the winningest coach in McNeese history. But that’s not really what I’m trying to do. I want to give our kids a chance to go for it (the NCAA Tournament) by playing a challenging schedule. And we went for it. We crashed and burned, and that’s the way it works. You wear it. It’s tough and we were challenged,” Hill said.
Now that his fifth season is in the books, Hill is still seeking answers and enlightenment.
Remember, he’s a learner. The baseball diamond is his classroom. So when I posed the question: What was his most impactful learning in 2018? One word came to Hill’s mind.
Specifically, there was the matter of learning new and better ways to teach his players how to prepare for and handle adversity.
Every pitch, at bat, ground ball and base running decision is different, and baseball is always trying to teach you a new lesson.
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.