Fair or not, in the landscape of collegiate athletics, with the Power Five, mid-majors and all others, a program is judged on whether play continues after the regular season ends. Postseason conference tournaments, bowl games, playoffs and NCAA brackets determine whether teams are ultimately deemed a success or not.
With that said, McNeese’s 2019 baseball campaign checked all the boxes and will go down as a milestone season that was highlighted with impressive road wins over LSU and Louisiana Tech, a strong bond and belief system in the locker room, a memorable late season surge, an undefeated run to a Southland Conference tournament championship and the program’s first NCAA tournament bid since 2003.
It wasn’t all strikeouts, home runs and high fives in the dugout.
Battle-tested head coach Justin Hill had to juggle his pitching rotation and lineup due to injuries; pull out his Skip Bertman coaching manual through an endless stretch of close one-run games; and watch hitters go through the ups and downs, cold spells and hot streaks that are inherent in baseball. With nearly a month left of the regular season, the Cowboys found themselves well below .500, sitting in 10th place in the conference standings and on the outside of the league’s Top 8 teams that would qualify for the postseason tournament.
It was a long, winding, bumpy, rough road of a season, but one navigated by Hill with steadfastness and iron will. He believed this team was indeed good enough for greatness even though at times they tested his patience.
One week, the pitchers were firing like sharpshooters while the bats went dormant. The next week, sluggers saw pitches as if they were the size of volleyballs while the arms on the mound went dead.
All the while, Hill, now a sixth year veteran of the diamond wars in the slugfest Southland, kept rolling the ball out on the field and demanding better focus, fundamentals and execution from his players.
He got it from late April through the end of May, as the Pokes won their last four conference series games of the season over Abilene Christian, Stephen F. Austin, Texas A&M, Corpus Christi and Houston Baptist. That momentum continued into the SLC tournament in Sugarland, Texas, where McNeese started and stayed in the winner’s bracket, winning four games en route to the tournament title and an automatic bid to the NCAA.
This team had talent, experience, leadership and brotherhood. But a run like that was one for the ages, and has not been witnessed in these parts for a long time.
Senior catcher Dustin Duhon from Moss Bluff grew up on the dusty ballparks across Southwest Louisiana and was good enough to play college ball at home with the Cowboys. He has won a regular season title and a tournament championship in the blue and gold with many hours and games behind home plate.
From his vantage point, this team had championship caliber players and just needed to keep grinding until all the pieces fell into place. “We knew we had a lot of talent and we were going to be a good team. And when things didn’t go our way, we kept telling each other to keep pushing and pushing and it’s going to work. We did just that and kept pushing.”
All SLC second baseman Nate Fisbeck, one of the squad’s top offensive stars, said the Cowboys’ confidence in each other never really wavered in the midst of the regular season struggles, the title run or in the Nashville regional. “I don’t think there was any doubt we were good enough. There was a little bit of doubt of how we were doing things, if that makes sense. We knew we had the talent. We saw it in the fall and all year long. The close ball games weren’t going our way, and we couldn’t figure out why. But we ended up playing our best baseball.”
That push and persistence got the Cowboys into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 16 years. In 2017, they won the regular season in dominant fashion and were snubbed by the selection process as the NCAA wrongly deemed the league a one-bid league that season.
Missing out on the NCAA fun two years ago added a story line and sweetness to this year and this accomplishment.
Hill is in the business of wins and losses, and he has done pretty well on that front. Five out of his six seasons as head coach have resulted in at least 30 wins. He is McNeese’s second all-time winningest baseball coach, with an SLC tournament title to his credit. And now he can scratch that elusive NCAA invite off his list.
“You have to have a lot of good fortune. You have to have a good team and a lot of things fall your way. To be one of the 64 — I’m not taking any of that for granted. It’s really hard. There have been a lot of good teams in this situation, and to be there is pretty humbling,” Hill explained, with obvious emotion in his voice.
Once the team landed in Nashville, they walked out of a charter flight donned with cowboy hats and dressed in blue. There was really no better regional location for a bunch of cowboys than in the home of country music.
Joining McNeese were three other conference champions in No. 1 seed Vanderbilt, second-seeded Indiana State and the fourth-seeded Buckeyes of Ohio State.
The Pokes spoke of being in Nashville to win it, and would not be intimidated by the venue, situation or competition — not even by perennial SEC power Vanderbilt.
They backed up those words with stellar play for the most part in one-run losses to Indiana State and Ohio State, as McNeese was eliminated by Saturday afternoon.
In its regional opener McNeese rallied from a 4-1 deficit to tie Indiana State at 4-all due to the bats of Duhon, Fisbeck and Clayton Rasbeary. The Sycamores got a well-timed two-strike, two-out home run in the fifth for the eventual 6-5 win.
It came down to one pitch and one swing. “I thought the story of the game was that they made one more play than we did,” Hill said.
Going into the elimination game against Ohio State, the Cowboys were a remarkable 25-1 when leading after 7 innings. Things were moving in that direction, with McNeese leading 8-5 in the eighth before the Buckeyes turned their red rally caps around to even the game at 8-all.
Then the Cowboys ran into a tornado out of the Buckeyes’ bullpen named Andrew Magno. The righthanded flame thrower sported only two pitches — which McNeese failed to figure out over the last four innings of a 13-inning matchup.
Magno’s nasty curve and blazing fastball struck out 12 Pokes, amassing a season high 107 pitches in relief to send the Cowboys home with their second one-run defeat of the weekend.
Hill shuttled out several bullpen aces to stretch a tie game into extra innings, waiting and hoping for an offensive break.
Ohio State needed something special from their end, and got a majestic season saver with Magno, who retired the last 10 McNeese batters, with six being strike outs.
“It was a memorable game,” Hill said after the defeat. “We came up on the wrong side of it. I thought both relievers at the back end of the game pitched really well. It’s a shame either one of them had to factor into the decision.”
Hill went on to say “it was a typical tournament game. We had a couple of chances to win the game. They just happened to get the swing at the right time.”
It was just like the game before, where it came down to one sequence; one at bat. The Cowboys saw a lead disappear and their NCAA tournament end much more quickly than they had hoped.
“I was proud of how our guys fought,” Hill said. “It was probably really symbolic, with the way that our season was. It was a fight. It wasn’t always the prettiest thing, but it was gritty the whole time. We left it all out there.” Hill was summing up both the regional games and the entire season.
Hill has followed past successful McNeese coaches like Hubert Boales, Tony Robichaux, Mike Bianco and Todd Butler. He has raised the program’s bar to new heights and lofty expectations. In six short years, he has instilled structure, consistency and a winning culture that have resulted in a regular season championship, a conference tournament title and an NCAA regional appearance.
He has overseen more than a million dollars of construction and improvements to the stadium, thanks in large part to local businessman and supporter Joe Miller. Hill’s recruiting of local and regional talent is unmatched, as is his ability to find high level players from the junior college ranks.
The stature of McNeese baseball has never been higher or more respected than it has been under Hill’s impressive leadership.
Senior pitcher Aidan Anderson realized at West Orange Stark High School five years ago the direction Hill was taking McNeese baseball in. He and his brother Grant (selected last year in the MLB Draft) wanted to be part of Hill’s master plan.
“When I met coach Hill in high school, he always had a championship mindset and goal. I think him and the coaches and all the guys they have brought in since he has been here have been working toward the goal — to win a championship; win multiple championships; get to a regional and a super regional and just keep going.”
The foundation for this championship culture is certainly Hill’s proven blueprint for success. Many of his critical chess pieces should return next season, depending on departures via baseball’s amateur draft.
Juniors Nate Fisbeck, Jake Dickerson, Brad Kincaid, Clayton Rasbeary and Rhett Deaton are names Hill hopes to see on his roster in 2020. Rising young stars like pitcher Will Dion of Sulphur (5-0 out of the bullpen) outfielders Payton Harden and Julian Gonzales will be the cornerstones of another title run next year.
This year’s road got them as far as Nashville for a NCAA regional.
Hill is already working on the next leg of the team’s journey — a journey that gets the Cowboys ever closer to Omaha.
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.