Resilient Cowboys: Respectable finish as SLC Tournament runner-up

Published 10:02 am Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Left for dead halfway through the conference season, the Cowboys rose to play for a championship.

McNeese State finished the season strong, ending with a 32-27 record, including 11-13 in conference, while overcoming injuries and a rough start.

Seven of their losses came against Southeastern Conference teams on the road, including six against teams ranked in the top five when they played.

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When healthy, McNeese found its offense and made a run to the Southland Conference Tournament title game for the fourth time in five tourneys.

“I’m very proud of what this team was able to accomplish,” said head coach Justin Hill. “We overcame a lot this year, always fighting.”

McNeese ended with 30 wins or more for the ninth time in Hill’s 11 seasons in the dugout. Once during his tenure have the Cowboys not won at least 30 games when playing a full schedule.

But it didn’t start off strong. McNeese lost its first four games and at one point was 2-9 in the league. Simply making the tournament was in doubt.

That’s when the Cowboys found their offense and won nine of their last 14 SLC games to finish fifth. They rode that momentum to the tournament title game where they lost 15-1 to Nicholls State, the preseason favorite.

“This was a long journey and we never quit,” said Hill, whose team was picked in the preseason poll to finish fifth. “We took the hard road.”

When the season began in February there were a lot of unknowns. It took time for things to come around, but once healthy, McNeese scored runs with the best of them. After averaging four runs per game through their first 10 SLC games, the Cowboys averaged eight runs in the final 14 conference games, scoring 10 or more runs on four occasions.

“The lasting effect this team had is going to be remembered,” Hill said. “They found a way to be successful. That says a lot about these guys.”

The Cowboys had big wins down the stretch. They beat Nicholls 10-6 in the regular-season finale to avoid a sweep and keep the Colonels from claiming a portion of the championship.

They knocked top-seeded Lamar out of the tournament, run-ruling the Cardinals 14-4 in seven innings after the Cardinals beat them 18-9 the day before.

The Cowboys finished with six players who hit .295 or better thanks to the late offensive surge. Cooper Hext led the way with a .310 average and eight home runs.

The senior outfielder from DeQuincy earned first-team all-conference honors. He led the league in stolen bases with 25 in 26 attempts. Hext finished with 74 hits and 54 runs scored.

Conner Westenburg, who had played few games in his first two seasons at McNeese, hit .296 with 41 runs batted in.

Senior Elliot Hebert was the difference-maker, Hill said. The first-baseman missed 19 games early in the season, but when he returned the offense took off. Hebert hit .329, blasting eight homers and 42 RBIs in 40 games.

Simon Larranaga led the team in homers with nine from the lead-off spot in the order.

After a slow start, Braden Duhon hit .302 while starting every game in right field. The senior from Moss Bluff joined Westenburg and Hext starting every game in the outfield.

Cameron LeJeune led the pitching staff at 7-2 with a 4.14 earned run average. He also had six saves in 74 innings on the mound.

The Cowboys likely overachieved with their postseason run.

With all the changes in college sports, the Cowboys will be unknown again next year. After the success of this season, that seems like not such a big deal.