Defending champs open SLC, Hill: Cowboys have room, but little time, for improvement

Published 11:00 am Friday, March 24, 2023

The Cowboys open defense of their regular-season conference baseball championship tonight at Joe Miller Ballpark.

McNeese State hasn’t hit its stride but has started strong, posting a 15-6 record, best in the Southland Conference.

“We are not a finished product by any means,” said McNeese head coach Justin Hill. “We have played at times well, but we can be a lot better and our players know it.”

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With room to grow, the Cowboys, winners of seven of their last eight and 14-3 since the opening week, host Nicholls State (13-10) with first pitch set for noon.

One eye will be on the weather as rain is expected throughout the weekend.

“It’s important that we get the games in if we can,” Hill said.

The Cowboys will send ace right-hander Grant Rogers to the mound for the series opener. Rogers leads the league with a 5-0 record and is second in earned run average at 0.77.

The junior has been dominant, allowing runs in two of his five starts. He is also giving up 3.9 hits per nine innings.

“I’m looking forward to the start of conference,” Rogers said. “We want to defend last year.”

Rogers, last season’s SLC Pitcher of the Year, has been even better after working on a few things in the offseason. He is working quicker and has walked five and allowed 15 hits over 35 innings.

“You have to feel pretty good about Grant going in Game 1,” Hill said. “He gives you a chance to win.”

Nicholls will counter with its ace Tyler Theriot (2-3, 2.63 ERA).

“He is a very good pitcher and part of a team that has a lot of guys coming back,” Hill said. “They have some big wins this season so we expect it will be a grind.”

With 24 games remaining in the season, Hill said he is treating it like a sprint.

“Every game will feel like it is worth double,” he said. “It will go by quick.”

Seven of the nine Southland teams are .500 or better in the preseason with Incarnate Word a game under.

“You have to be ready for every weekend,” Hill said. “League play is just different. I expect it to be completely competitive.”

The McNeese offense has yet to fully click but still has some big numbers. Josh Leslie leads the conference in both doubles (10) and runs batted in (29). Cooper Hext is second in runs scored with 27 and tied for third in home runs with five.

“Conference play is always different and intense,” Leslie said. “We are looking forward to it.”

One part of the McNeese offense that has been solid is the running game. The Cowboys are second in the conference with 55 stolen bases and have been caught five times.

“That is going to be a big part of what we do,” Hill said. “As long as we keep getting on base we are going to stay aggressive.”

Leslie and Payton Harden both are third in the league in stolen bases with 11 while Brad Burckel is seventh with 10.

The Nicholls offense is topped by Xane Washington (.350) who is ninth in the conference in hitting.

Game 2 is set for 2 p.m. Saturday with Houston transfer Derrick Cherry (3-0, 2.73) going against fellow right-hander Devin Desandro (1-2, 4.35). In Sunday’s finale Zach Voss (1-2, 3.37) is the likely starter for McNeese with freshman Mayers (3-1, 2.55) going for the Colonels.