By Rick Sarro
It’s very rare for a college baseball team to have two or three players back for a fourth season. The usual culprits come into play: graduation cycles, being a junior college transfer, injuries and professional opportunities via the Major League amateur draft.
The McNeese Cowboys have beaten those odds with a core group of nine players who have been together for four years after joining the program as freshmen.
Senior outfielder Shane Selman leads the group as the Cowboys’ power hitter. He is the only player in team history to hit 10 or more home runs in three straight years. Selman was selected in the 39th round by the Boston Red Sox in last year’s MLB draft, but he chose to return for his final season in hopes of improving his pro prospects.
Everyday players like Dustin Duhon, Jake Cochran, Jacob Stracner, Nate Fisbeck, Austin Nelson and pitchers Bryan King and Aidan Anderson make up the senior veteran lineup that head coach Justin Hill will lean on for production and guidance on and off the diamond.
“I just love being around them. They are just really good leaders for our other players. You bring in that many new players, and it’s nice to not have to be the only voice. It’s nice to have that leadership from the inside. We can set the standards, but when the locker room takes it over and really drives the bus it will be the difference in how well your program is going to do. It’s something special for a group of guys to come together. I am excited to see what those guys will do for the 2019 season,” Hill said with a smile.
With an army of mature, seasoned vets in place, Hill admits “it frees you up to coach.” He says with a straight face that coaches have to “babysit” because it’s part of the job. But with those seniors acting as on-field coaches, Hill and his staff can really focus on making the younger players better.
Hill started scouting a few of those veteran seniors before he signed on as McNeese’s coach in 2014. He knows their stories, their families, their hopes and dreams, their strengths and weaknesses. That familiarity builds strong relationships and trust in one another and the system.
It seems that now, more than ever, coaches from the NFL, NBA, MLB and throughout the collegiate ranks all preach from the same locker room bible that says players have to want to play for each other first and foremost. Coach-speak turns to references of brotherly love and players bonding, which results in chemistry and an “I’ve got your back” mentality.
This generation of athletes, who communicate more through text, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter, need a haven like a close and cohesive locker room. It’s a prerequisite for success on the field, especially over a long baseball season, where the lineup will change according to who has the hot bat and higher fielding percentage.
“That’s where you get the family element (being together for four years). Family is not always blood. They’ve been through a lot and seen a lot. You just want to get them as ready as possible. Take care of them and finish on a high note,” Hill said.
Other familiar faces on the team have a shorter history in the Blue and Gold but will play pivotal roles, in particular pitchers Peyton McLemore, Cayne Ueckert, Adam Goree and Rhett Deaton, who missed all of last year with a shoulder injury.
Deaton got the start for the season opener at U.T.-San Antonio after a year of rehabbing his throwing arm. The junior right-hander threw a strong five innings of scoreless baseball, giving up three hits with four strikeouts. “It’s great to be back out there. There was a ton of emotion. The guys showed up and helped me out by putting up some runs on the board, and that’s always nice,” said Deaton after the Cowboys’ huge 16-5 road victory.
Deaton, who finished the 2017 season with a spiffy 8-3 record and 3.78 ERA, was the story of the season opener, according to Coach Hill. That’s saying a lot after Selman busted out going 3-for-5 at the plate for five RBIs and being just a double away from hitting the cycle in his season debut. “It felt great to get out there and swing the bat,“ Selman said. “I was feeling good at the plate for sure. I was seeing the ball big — heck, we all were. We all kind of fed off each other.”
That’s where a trusting and sacrificial locker room comes into play —following a signal that comes from the dugout to get on base and allow a teammate to knock in the runs.
This McNeese squad won’t have to look very far down the dugout bench if they’re ever in need of inspiration when a slump comes their way — and it will come. That’s the true nature of baseball; working through the inevitable adversity of the game.
These inspirational stories belong to Deaton and Fisbeck, as they spent all of last year rehabbing injuries, disconnected from the team but trying to help any way they could.
Then there was DH-utility man Austin Nelson, who was fighting his way back to both the football field and baseball diamond after undergoing surgery for a brain tumor.
These three remarkable players will be counted on for production, but will also bring a unique perspective to playing baseball and balancing life’s realities that every young player must navigate at some point in their lives.
Hill marvels at their sheer joy and excitement in just being on the field. And he knows how that can help the other guys when a bad stretch hits and self-doubt sets in. “When you go through something like that, be it an injury or Austin’s situation, and when the game is taken away from you, it gives you such perspective.
“You take fewer things for granted. You take care of the opportunities. The moment slows down for you. You realize it’s not as big of a moment. It’s not that big of a deal. The pressure is lessened, in a way, and you get to enjoy the moment. They’ve had a compound effect on our team this year, and you will see that impact our team in a positive way,” says Hill.
Deaton’s winning debut may have helped senior Bryan King in the second game of that series in San Antonio. King came out of the bullpen and pitched five scoreless inning, as McNeese piled on more offense in a 12-3 rout against the Roadrunne, who swept the Cowboys last season.
A healthy Fisbeck set the tone early with a first-inning home run going 3-for-4 with three runs scored.
Those nine blue-blood Cowboys will contribute mightily, no doubt, led by Selman, Carson Maxwell and catcher Dustin Duhon. The impact of those returning injured Pokes has been felt quickly. Pitchers Peyton McLemore and Anderson will be counted on as critical starters in Hill’s master plan.
Clayton Rasbeary, a junior college transfer in the outfield, has caught the eye of the coaching staff, not only for his physical presence (6 feet, 3 inches, 205 pounds) but also the way he swings the bat.
Rasbeary collected three home runs over his first two games, and is expected to be a force at the plate in his first season with the Cowboys.
The steady hand guiding the program is Hill, who enters his sixth season as head coach. A devoted family man with two young daughters, Hill doesn’t have a loud, flashy persona. He possesses a strong voice with a consistent message, a vault of baseball knowledge and what he describes as simply “a love for baseball.”
Hill is a former collegiate pitcher and was an assistant coach before becoming the Cowboys’ leader back in 2014. He is now the bedrock coaching star in McNeese’s athletic department, which has undergone a lot of turnover in football and basketball of late. His overall record at McNeese going into the season was 155-131. His only record below .500 came last year when the Cowboys finished 25-33. The team was the sixth seed in the Southland Conference Tournament but suffered two quick defeats for an early exit.
Hill, a consummate competitor — as he says, from checkers to golf — was not pleased with the team’s performance, considering the fact he had All SLC stars Joe Provenzano and Selman in the lineup in 2018. A baseball coach or manager can press every button correctly and make every right call in a game and still lose. It’s the quirky nature of the game Hill is so passionate about.
A man who hates to lose at anything might be tempted to use any tactic available to bounce back from last season’s losing record, but not Hill, who believes that approach to motivation is a slippery slope.
“Any time your motivation changes — like, we want to repeat, or we want to show last year was a fluke — then you are trying to hit a moving target. I don’t think there is any stability with that, for me personally. Do I think that drives some guys? Absolutely. But I just want to be the best that I can and know as much as I can to help put our players in the best position to win,” explained Hill.
Hill is one of a trio of talented SLC head coaches based in Louisiana, the other two being Southeastern Louisiana’s Matt Riser and Northwestern State’s Bobby Barbier. They are all friends and competitors in a tough and demanding profession.
The stress of limited scholarships, budgets, the need for improved facilities, talent evaluation, recruiting and constant roster changes due to the pro draft and injuries can wear on the strongest and most dedicated coaches like Hill. Baseball is the one sport driven and guided by numbers. But sometimes those stats don’t tell the whole story of a team or season. For the introspective Hill, success begins with him.
“I have to do a better job. I don’t think I prepared the team as well as I could (last year). I think I learned a lot last year as far as preparing a team. I believe I made some positive adjustments with those things, and I think our players have done the same thing.”
A positive start to the season brings the Cowboys home for a stretch of 11 games, including hosting the annual Lake Area Classic and Mardi Gras Classic at the Jeaux over the next two weekends.
Rick Sarro’s perspectives and commentary can be heard on Soundoff 60 Monday through Sunday evenings at 9 pm broadcast on channel 4 on Suddenlink.