Title Hunters: Cowboys roll past Cardinals

Published 11:33 am Friday, May 20, 2022

On a night of firsts, it’s the number 263 which takes center stage.

McNeese State head coach Justin Hill tied the legendary Tony Robichaux for most career wins as a Cowboys skipper Thursday night at 263.

In doing so, his team took the first step in trying to win its third consecutive Southland Conference tournament title.

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Top-seeded McNeese used power and speed to topple No. 8 Nicholls State 12-6 in the first round of the Lake Charles Bracket at Joe Miller Ballpark, which was hosting a postseason game for the first time ever. It was the Cowboys’ ninth consecutive SLC tourney victory dating to 2019 and fifth in a row scoring in double figures.

The Cowboys (31-21) will play No. 4 Nicholls (26-23) at 6 p.m. today in the winners bracket. UIW (19-30) will play Northwestern State (25-28) in an elimination game at 1 p.m. Nicholls beat Northwestern State 7-6 in the day’s first game.

“What a man to be associated with,” Hill said of the record. “What he has done for me and for my family and McNeese baseball, it’s just an honor.

“If I can be half the man Tony Robichaux was and care as little about records as he did, I will be happy with that.”

SLC Player of the Year Payton Harden had four hits and raised his league-leading batting average to .381 to lead the 12-hit Cowboys attack. Harden stole three bases and scored four runs. He has 12 hits in his last 19 at-bats (.632).

“I’m super locked in,” Harden said. “This is tournament time. We got the first one that that is a huge one to get.”

Kade Hunter and Kade Morris each hit two-run homers to provide the Cowboys’ power. Hunter’s homer in the third gave McNeese the lead for good, 3-2.

For Hunter, the 390-foot blast just to the left of center was his sixth of the season and third in three games. Morris’ blast went 402 feet, clearing both walls in left-center field. It was his team-leading ninth and gave the Cowboys a 9-2 lead heading into the seventh.

UIW scored a run in the seventh and two more in the eighth to make things interesting.

The Cowboys, the regular-season conference champs, took control in the fifth, scoring three times on three hits. Brad Burckel’s run-scoring triple to the corner in right was the big blow as McNeese grabbed a 7-2 lead.

“We were able to get out to the lead and just kept piling on,” Harden said. “We know what tournament time is like. Nobody wants to go home. We just want to keep going and going.”

SLC Pitcher of the Year Grant Rogers improved to 7-4, going six-plus innings and allowing three runs (two earned) on seven hits.

The Cardinals took a 2-1 lead in the third on Alec Carr’s RBI single and an error by McNeese third baseman Josh Leslie. However, Hunter made that lead short-lived.

The Cowboys took a 1-0 lead in the first thanks to Harden. He singled with one out, stole second, went to third on a fielder’s choice and scored on a wild pitch.

“Everybody is bloodied this time of year,” Hill said. “You just have to keep going. It’s on to tomorrow.”

McNeese will start Chance Stone (3-2, 4.20 ERA) against Nicholls. After losing the coin flip, the Cowboys will be the road team.

“To be able to do this in front of our fans is just something special,” Hill said.