Cowboys welcome SLC, defending champs look for three-peat

Published 10:00 am Thursday, May 19, 2022

History will be made tonight at Joe Miller Ballpark.

How much depends on the outcome of the game.

For the first time in program history McNeese State will host a postseason baseball game. But that’s just part of the story.

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If the Cowboys win it will also be historic for head coach Justin Hill, who will tie Tony Robichaux for most career victories at 263.

All that as a backdrop to the Cowboys starting what they hope will be a run to a third consecutive Southland Conference Tournament championship and trip to the NCAA Tournament.

“Right now I’m just worried about winning the first game,” Hill said. “Everything else will take care of itself.”

After winning the regular-season title, the Cowboys (30-21) are the top seed in both the Lake Charles Bracket and overall. That means if the Cowboys survive the four-team, double-elimination bracket they will host the best-of-three championship series the following weekend.

The other bracket will be in Hammond and feature second-seeded Southeastern Louisiana as host.

“It’s great because we have earned this by winning,” Hill said. “What more could you want but to be at home?”

McNeese will face eighth-seeded Incarnate Word (19-29) today in the second game of the tourney at 6 p.m. No. 4 Nicholls State (25-23) will play No. 5 Northwestern State (25-27) in the first game at 1 p.m. The winners will meet Friday night with the losers squaring off in an elimination game in the afternoon.

McNeese is 6-3 against the teams in the bracket, losing a series only to Northwestern State. The Cowboys, who are 22-14 at home, swept UIW and took two of three from Nicholls. The series against the Cardinals was in Lake Charles and saw McNeese outscore UIW 24-7.

The Cards are 3-21 on the road and have lost 12 of their last 13 out of San Antonio.

“What happened in the regular season doesn’t matter,” Hill said. “We have to be ready to play right from the start. It begins by getting the first out of the first game.”

The Cowboys say they’re happy to be at home and on a roll for the tournament. They have won their last four games, outscoring their opponents 63-29 with two of those games ending early by the run rule.

“This is great to play at home,” said junior outfielder Payton Harden. “We have earned this.”

McNeese brings its league-best batting average of .304 into the game with three players finishing in the top six in the SLC. Harden led the way at .371, claiming the title by one point.

Second baseman Brad Burckel was third at .360 with outfielder Braden Duhon sixth at .333. McNeese also led the league in pitching with an earned run average of 4.40.

Taking the mound for McNeese will be right-hander Grant Rogers (6-4, 4.18 ERA). Rogers, who was named the SLC Pitcher of the Year, allowed three runs on seven hits over 51/3 innings in a victory over UIW on April 14.

Right-hander Michael Garza (5-4, 5.56), a third-team all-SLC selection, will head to the mound for the Cardinals. Garza allowed three runs on three hits over seven innings against McNeese back on April 15. The Cowboys won the game in 11 innings.

“It is really good to be able to play on our home field for a conference championship,” Rogers said. “With all the crowd is going to be there, the home-field advantage, it’s going to to be great.

“All I’m going to try to do is have fun.”

Rogers is one of 17 McNeese players to be honored with league awards, most in the conference. That includes Player of the Year Payton Harden and Hill, who was selected as Coach of the Year.

“It’s a great honor and great to see these guys get the credit they deserve,” Hill said. “For me, I consider it a staff award. I got great players and a great coaching staff.”

Hill said he isn’t worried about any award hangover.

“In a way it’s good because it closes the book on the regular season,” he said. “But these guys are right back at it. They are not satisfied.”

A third consecutive tourney title would also make history.