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In his first year as head coach at McNeese, Justin Hill, left, made a lot of changes in the way things were done, getting a 30-28 record out of the Cowboys. (Rick Hickman / American Press)

In his first year as head coach at McNeese, Justin Hill, left, made a lot of changes in the way things were done, getting a 30-28 record out of the Cowboys. (Rick Hickman / American Press)

Hill leads Cowboys to winning mark in first season in dugout

Last Modified: Tuesday, May 27, 2014 5:21 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

It would be difficult to argue that McNeese State did not maximize its potential on the diamond this season.

The Cowboys weren’t even expected to reach the Southland Conference tournament based on the preseason polls, but finished the season one win away from making the tourney’s final day. Their two tournament wins marked McNeese’s first postseason success since 2010, and the Cowboys eclipsed the .500 mark and won at least 30 games for the first time since that season.

It’s a solid list of accomplishments for first-year head coach Justin Hill, but not enough to result in satisfaction.

“Any time you get to that point in the postseason, you always want more,” Hill said. “You wonder if there’s anything you could have done different. But three of the four games in the tournament, we played about as well as we could with the personnel we had. The guys got after it. They played hard and did everything they could do to win. That was as good as we played in a while.”

As is so often the case in college baseball tournaments, success went to those who avoided going through the extra hoops the loser’s bracket requires one to jump through. Title game opponents Central Arkansas and Southeastern Louisiana each went 3-0 heading into the final, and the issue of freshness certainly did not benefit the Cowboys in their elimination game against the Bears — particularly the absence of leading RBI-man Jackson Gooch.

But again, considering the outlook going into the season, merely being in such a position is a sign of progress for the McNeese program.

“I thought we left a lot of respect there for how we played the game and did things right,” Hill said.

The Cowboys have a solid core returning next year on the mound and in the field, but Hill’s biggest challenge in Year 2 will be replacing the meat of his batting order.

His top two hitters, Chayse Marion and Gooch, are graduating. So is Lucas Quary, who hit a team-high seven homers as a platoon player. Combined with third baseman Reed Gordy and backup catcher Sam Peterson, seniors accounted for 74 percent (17 of 23) of McNeese’s homers this year.

On paper McNeese will have plenty of guys who can get on base, but for the time being there are no obvious wallbangers.

“You can’t replace those guys. You can’t expect someone to come in to hit in middle of order,” Hill said. “The only thing you can try to do is replace the production. It’s going to be a different-looking team. (Marion and Gooch) were mainstays in the middle of the lineup for two years. The whole idea is trying to replace the production. They’re not replaceable from a personality standpoint.”

Hill said this season’s success was possible not only because of the seniors’ production, but by how the group of players recruited by another coaching staff took to him.

“I think each team has their own fondness in your heart, but this one I’ll remember a long time,” Hill said. “How the seniors embraced me, and just wanted to go out and play baseball.”

McNeese’s returners will attempt to improve this offseason to help fill the void left by the seniors, and so will Hill. Being a first-year coach provided him with several lessons that can only be learned through first-hand experience.

“Naturally, we’ll do some things just a little bit different,” Hill said. “I think any time you go from Year 1 to Year 2, you’ll have that.”

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