The Justin Hill era is off to a charmed start at McNeese State.
The Cowboys won the second consecutive game to open their new coach’s career, knocking off Missouri 3-2 Saturday afternoon at Cowboy Diamond.
It was McNeese’s first win over a Southeastern Conference opponent since beating Arkansas in 2011, and the first home win over an SEC foe since a 2000 victory over LSU.
“We have a lot of fight in this team. We have a chip on our shoulder,” said starting pitcher Michael Clemens, who struck out seven and allowed two runs on six hits in 6 1/3 innings. “We have so much talent. I expected us to win this game. I didn’t expect anything less.”
The Cowboys (2-0) gutted out the win in every sense.
“Two-and-0 is pretty good,” Hill said. “I’m proud of how the kids came out with energy. They did a good job celebrating together when we made a big play in a key spot. A lot of people pitched in. It was a real team win.”
Clemens (1-0) spring-boarded things with a quality start, but also got help from an offense that scratched out one of its runs in an inning without a hit and two bullpen pitchers who forced crucial late-game double plays.
In other words, the kind of things that rarely happened to McNeese last year.
“It’s a great collegiate environment,” said shortstop Connor Lloyd. “It’s a good attitude all-around in the locker room, the dugout, on the field. As you can see, we’re ready to play.”
There was no lack of tension in the final three innings, as McNeese escaped each with the tying Missouri (1-1) run stranded on third base.
Closer Kaleb Fontenot got the final out when he forced Tigers right fielder Jake Ivory to pop up to catcher Sam Peterson as pinch-runner Jordan Getzelman loomed 90 feet away.
“The mind-set is the same in that situation,” Fontenot said. “Just throw strikes and get an out. One out was all I needed.”
It wasn’t Fontenot’s first great escape. He entered for Colin Kober with runners at the corners and one out in the eighth and forced Josh Lester to line out to Lloyd for a double play.
Lloyd tossed the ball to second baseman Andrew Guillotte despite snagging it inches off the ground on the fly, and Guillotte was able to relay to first baseman Chayse Marion in time to force out Tiger baserunner Dillon Everett.
“It was a low ball, and sometimes the umpires won’t see the glove under it,” Lloyd said. “I knew I had time, so I went ahead and threw to second in case he didn’t see it. After I flipped it he called the catch. But I did that to make sure.”
The Cowboys got another massive double play in the seventh when lefty Tyler Erickson took over for Clemens with runners at the corners. Erickson induced left-handed pinch-hitter Dylan Kelly into a 4-6-3 inning-ender, causing his Cowboys teammates to explode out of the dugout to greet him.
“There’s a lot of positive energy in the dugout,” Clemens said.
Guillotte proved to be the offensive difference-maker for McNeese with two runs and three steals.
The junior from Moss Bluff scored the go-ahead run coming home from second — which he had stolen — on a Jackson Gooch grounder that went through the glove of Mizzou third baseman Ryan Howard.
Guillotte stole home in the third inning, alertly breaking for the plate when Gooch was caught in a rundown between first and second.
McNeese plated that run without getting a hit in the inning. Guillotte walked, stole second and advanced to third on a James Cantu fly to left before scoring on Mizzou’s attempt to pick off Gooch.
“We did a good job of the little things today,” Hill said. “The ball Cantu hit to left, not a lot of people tag up on that. But Andrew did a great job of getting to third, and that set us up for a situation to score.”
The Cowboys wrap up the reincarnated Lake Area Classic against Southern Mississippi at 4 p.m. today.
The Golden Eagles lost 4-2 to Missouri in the first game of Saturday’s tripleheader.