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Andrew Guillote collides with Jack Klages on a play at the plate. Guillote was safe on the play. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Andrew Guillote collides with Jack Klages on a play at the plate. Guillote was safe on the play. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Fresh start raises Cowboy hopes

Last Modified: Tuesday, February 18, 2014 12:07 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

If Febreze is looking for some new scents to bottle, “2014 McNeese baseball” is still available.

That’s how much of a breath of fresh air the Cowboys were in their opening weekend sweep of the hastily revived Lake Area Classic.

The 3-0 start to the year is McNeese’s first since 2010, and that may be no coincidence. That was the last McNeese team to display a knack for scrapping out unlikely wins, as well as the last to win a game in the Southland Conference tournament.

The postseason is a long, long way from here. But you can’t ask for a better start to a career for rookie head coach Justin Hill, who has yet to see his team bat in the ninth inning.

The Cowboys sandwiched a pair of blowout wins — one over a team they were supposed to beat (Chicago State) and one they weren’t (Southern Miss) — around a nailbiter against SEC opponent Missouri.

The surprise start was enough to earn McNeese some votes in the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Top 30 poll.

The only other Southland program to receive consideration in the season’s first poll is the one visiting Cowboy Diamond tonight at 6 p.m. — Sam Houston State.

Due to the integration of four new programs into the Southland schedule, this is the only time the Bearkats and Cowboys will meet in the regular season.

It won’t count in the conference standings, and neither team will have a weekend starter on the mound.

Nevertheless, it is another chance for McNeese to build on a confidence that has not yet shown a reason to abate.

“We feel the new attitude and environment around the locker room,” said junior shortstop Connor Lloyd. “We’re really excited for this year, and it’s just carried over. It’s a really good environment, and it’s going to be a good year for us, I think.”

Hill may be a head coaching rookie, but he’s no dumb cookie. Even with the strong start, he’s been around the game and part of enough good teams long enough to know his squad will travel through choppy waters at some point.

“We understand when you’re playing 56 games and hopefully the postseason, there’s going to be times when adversity comes,” Hill said. “When adversity does come, how we handle that is going to tell where we’re standing at.”It’s hard to know when that test will come, but the way the Cowboys pulled games out on opening weekend shows they may be up to the task.

The bullpen worked out of every jam McNeese found itself in, allowing just one run in 13 innings of work. Their performance against Missouri was perfection, stranding the tying run at third base in each of the final three innings and getting out of potentially hazardous scenarios with inning-ending double plays in the seventh and eighth.

The Cowboys made things happen on the bases, twice stealing home by baiting the opposing pitcher to throw to first on a pickoff attempt that forced a rundown and allowed the man at third to break for the plate.Unexpected sources of offense were another part of the story.

Hill went into the season expecting to platoon Reed Gordy. Trouble is you can’t take a guy hitting .455 with a team-high 5 RBIs out of the lineup.

Freshman Clay Payne was another who earned a shot to show what he could do with a Sunday start in left field. He responded by going 3-for-3 in his first college game.

If a team can continue getting role players to light a spark, it helps assure that any slumps encountered during the season will not remain prolonged.

McNeese’s undefeated start to the season can’t last forever. But it already may be enough to make this team believe it is capable of much more than its projected 10th-place finish.

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