As the McNeese State baseball team took the field to practice Monday afternoon at Joe Miller Ballpark to practice for the Southland Conference Tournament, there was a point earlier in the season when it didn't look likely that they would be doing so.
Near the end of April, the Cowboys went on the road and lost two out of three against Northwestern State to fall to 7-11 in SLC play. That record had McNeese on the outside looking in at the top eight spots in the conference, which is what's needed to go to the tournament.
When Cowboys head coach Justin Hill sat down for his weekly news conference on April 23, there was a sense of frustration. Not just about the losses, but at how close the team had been to winning some of the close games they lost.
Then, Hill set a bar and did a bit of foreshadowing.
"The way it is, we've got to win every series coming out," Hill said. "We don't have to win every single game, but the numbers tell us, 15-15 in conference gets you in the tournament. That's what it has historically, so that's what we're looking at right now. We've got to figure out a way to win four series."
Since those words were uttered, Hill and the Cowboys won their last four SLC series, going 9-3 in conference games. He said 15 wins would get the team in the tournament, and sure enough, McNeese clinched a tournament berth with a 16-6 win over Houston Baptist on Friday — their 15th conference win of the season.
McNeese went one past that, defeating HBU 5-1 in comeback fashion the following day to finish the regular season with a 16-14 SLC record. That result, combined with Stephen F. Austin and Northwestern State losing their respective series, meant that the Cowboys clinched the fifth seed in the tournament.
The Cowboys will open tournament play at 7 p.m. today against Incarnate Word at Constellation Stadium in Sugar Land, Texas.
From out of the tournament picture to being the fifth seed, what happened?
"At the beginning of the year, offense was in a groove and pitching was struggling a little bit," McNeese second baseman Nate Fisbeck said. "And then it kind of reversed roles. I think the past few weeks have shown that we're working all together — pitching well, playing defense and being able to score a lot of runs. Just the ability to do all that together and play as a team is dangerous."
No. 4 UIW (35-20) swept the Cowboys in Lake Charles in McNeese's second conference series of the season (March 22-24). McNeese lost all three games by a combined six runs. Most of the players say they are eager to play UIW again to show that the Cardinals caught them at the wrong time of the season.
The Cardinals go into the tournament having lost two out three at home last week to Southeastern Louisiana (30-25), which is the second seed in the tournament.
"We definitely owe them one," Cowboys pitcher Rhett Deaton said of UIW. "We weren't playing really together as a unit at the beginning. I don't think they got the best us when we met up with them the first. So we're looking forward to playing them again."
The Cowboys went two-and-out in last year's tournament.