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Justin Hill makes his debut as the McNeese State head baseball coach in tonight's season opener. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Justin Hill makes his debut as the McNeese State head baseball coach in tonight's season opener. (Rick Hickman / Special to the American Press)

Cowboys begin Hill era

Last Modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 12:30 PM

By Alex Hickey / American Press

Starting tonight, it’s a new-look everything for McNeese State baseball.

The most obvious makeover was in the dugout, where rookie head coach Justin Hill will make his debut in today’s 6 p.m. game against Chicago State.

The Cowboys are coming off a 23-31 season that ended with a two-and-out showing in the Southland Conference tournament and the resignation of six-year head coach Terry Burrows.

Even though every first-year coach who takes over a middling program is afforded a honeymoon period, Hill is not viewing this season through that lens.

“We’re definitely not looking at it like that,” Hill said. “We’re certainly optimistic in that I like how the group comes to play every day. They’re certainly ready for a challenge. The biggest thing is we want to know who we are as a team in about four weeks.”

There will be no shortage of experimentation in the month before the start of conference play.

“Which guys line up better against left-handers, right-handers, those kind of things,” Hill said. “It’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for us as a team, as coaches, for myself.”

Some things have already been tweaked.

It won’t be hard to see McNeese players from afar with an alternate yellow cap added to the uniform kit. It also won’t be difficult to tell who the players are without a program — one of Hill’s first decisions was to put their last names on the back of their jerseys.

Hill’s theory is it will create the opposite of a me-first attitude.

“That name on the back represents a lot more than just that player,” Hill said. “It represents their family, it represents their parents, it represents everybody that helped them get to that point. So it just gives an extra connection between all our fans and the people coming to the game.”

The offense’s heavy lifting will be done by the guy with “Gooch” on his back.

Senior Jackson Gooch led McNeese in 13 offensive categories last year, including batting average, doubles, home runs and RBIs.

The good news is there is enough competition on the roster to force Gooch to change positions. He moves to center field to make way for junior college transfer James Cantu, who will take over in left.

With Gooch patrolling center, Andrew Guillotte was brought in to take care of the middle of the infield at second base.

“James Cantu won a position, and it meant we had four outfielders,” Hill said. “We didn’t want to pigeonhole ourselves and make one of those guys a DH.

“We’re very fortunate Andrew is athletic enough where he could even play shortstop if we needed him to. And if we need to go defensive late, we can move Andrew out to center and put Hans Ask or Phillip LeBleu at second.”

The Cowboys have returners at first base, right field and shortstop in the respective forms of Chayse Marion, Matt Williams and Connor Lloyd.

Sophomore Cameron Toole is back behind the plate, but will be spelled by Sam Peterson after playing 95 percent of McNeese’s innings last season.

Peterson, the Cowboys’ jack-of-all-trades, will also play third base and pitch.

“The thing I know about Sam is he’ll ultimately find his way into the lineup just because of the leadership and presence he brings,” Hill said. “No matter what role you ask of him, he’ll accept it.”

The rotation is headed by sophomore Bryce Kingsley, a Louisville Slugger Freshman all-American last year.

Junior Michael Clemens will try to duplicate his freshman numbers as the Saturday starter after a sophomore campaign that was limited to five appearances and a 9.64 ERA. Clemens went 3-3 with a 3.43 ERA as a starter and reliever in 2012.

“His biggest thing is consistency,” Hill said. “He’s throwing the ball in the zone. His stuff has been good from a velocity standpoint. He’s got a couple out pitches. Week in, week out he’s been consistent. Our guys feel they have a chance to win every time he goes out.”

Michael Desabrais, who did not throw a pitch after March 24 last season, has made enough of an impression on his new coach to become the Sunday starter.

“He has the ability to dominate a game,” Hill said. “I think you’ll see that. It’s a matter of him executing pitches and seeing what happens.”

Sophomore Kaleb Fontenot has been tabbed by Hill to close games.

McNeese opens its schedule with 11 of its first 12 games at home before going on a nine-game road trip that will include its conference-opening series at Stephen F. Austin.

Posted By: KAY/BILL CLEMENS On: 2/17/2014

Title: McNEESEE FAN

GOOD LUCK TO COACH HILL. COACH HILL, YOUR MANAGING THIS WEEKEND GAMES WAS SPOT ON. WE LIKE THE PLAYERS NAMES DISPLAYED ON THEIR JERSEYS. WE WISH YOU AND YOUR TEAM A SUCCESSFUL 2014 SEASON!!!!!! GOOD ARTICLE ALEX HICKEY!!!!!

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