Life is different when you're at the top.
If the McNeese State baseball team didn't know that before, it's about to find out as the college baseball regular season begins tonight. The Cowboys will open at home with a four-game series against Mississippi Valley State, playing at 6 p.m. today, a doubleheader starting at 2 p.m. Saturday, and wrapping up the series at 1 p.m. Sunday.
There is a lot of excitement around Joe Miller Ballpark for the defending SLC Tournament champions. The top four hitters return along with other key players. On the mound the Cowboys have a lot to replace because of graduation, but they do return Sulphur High graduate Will Dion, arguably the best freshman pitcher in the SLC last season.
But one of the things that excites head coach Justin Hill the most is how little his team talks about last season. They know that is the past and they have to perform well in 2020 if they want to make more history.
"I think when you've kind of been in it a little bit, you see how teams respond to success," Hill said. "It didn't come from me, but it's something I've noticed, nobody has talked about last year at all. They showed up ready to work. There was never ‘This is how we do things,' or ‘Hey, we're trying to get back.' It really wasn't any of those things from a daily talk standpoint. It was just ‘Hey, let's get to work.'"
But Hill also stressed that it hasn't been a totally serious environment sapped of joy.
"It's been business, but it's been fun too," Hill said. "It's been a lot of fun to be around, whether it be practice, intrasquad (scrimmages), whatever. Off day, whether we're doing a pancake dinner, an auction, whatever it is. This has been a fun group being around."
When the Cowboys come up to bat, opposing pitchers won't be able to find many, if any, soft spots in the lineup. Second baseman Nate Fisbeck was one of three McNeese players named to the preseason all-SLC first team (along with Dion and outfielder Clayton Rasbeary).
Fisbeck was ranked the No. 18 second baseman in D1 Baseball's preseason power rankings. He is one of the few right-handed batters in what is generally expected to be a heavy lefty lineup. Rasbeary, along with fellow outfielders Julian Gonzales and Payton Harden, first baseman Jake Dickerson and shortstop Reid Borque are all left-handed batters who received significant playing time last season and have cemented their starting spots.
There aren't many spots that need to be filled in the field, but the ones that do leave big shoes to fill. With the departure of outfielder Shane Selman to graduation and the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, Hill decided to adjust his outfield, moving Rasbeary from his designated hitter role to right field, switching Gonzales from right to left field, and nudging Harden over from left to center field.
"You don't really replace Shane Selman," Hill said. "A guy like that for four years, you pencil in the lineup, all-conference, all-region, draft pick, all those different things … Clayton Rasbeary will start the year in right field for us. What he's done with his body and preparing himself to go play, he's become a really, really good defensive outfielder."
Behind the plate, Hill said the time will be split between senior Brett Whelton and sophomore Schuyler Thibodaux, who Hill said has fully recovered from a hip injury that prematurely ended his 2019 season. Before he got hurt, Thibodaux hit .500 (9 of 18) with four runs scored in eight games played (six starts).
At third base, the job of replacing 2019 Gold Glove Award winner Carson Maxwell will be no easy task. Redshirt sophomores Welles Cooley and Peyton Johnson are expected to compete for the position, Hill said.
Hill said the DH plan is to rotate players depending on certain scenarios like pitching matchups and stadium dimensions.
On the mound, Hill was effusive in his praise of Dion and didn't hesitate to name him the opening-day starter. And it wasn't because of Dion's great work last season as a freshman (5-0, 1.98 ERA), it's because of the work he's put in throughout the offseason and since the start of spring practice, Hill said.
"Last year I was lazy," Dion acknowledged. "I didn't do much, I didn't run. Now, I've taken my training above and beyond. So I feel way more prepared than last year."
Hill did not name any other starters for this weekend's series against MVSU, but there are multiple pitchers who will look to make a mark in the starting rotation. LSU-Eunice transfer Andrew Sheridan, senior lefty Jonathan Ellison and fellow senior Hunter Reeves are among those vying for one of the three weekend rotation spots once conference play starts.
With Dion seemingly leaving the bullpen for a starting role, there are no set relief pitchers, Hill said. In a way, Hill said he that uncertainty because he wants to see who responds to the pressure.
"I felt like, from a development team standpoint, if we were to stick Will in (the bullpen), there would be this safety net," Hill said. "There's no safety net in there right now. We're going to throw Will Game 1 and he won't be available the rest of the weekend … We're going to see what we've got."
Facing a challenging schedule which includes midweek road games at Rice, LSU, Texas and Louisiana-Lafayette, the road to another NCAA Tournament berth will be tough.
But Hill said "this team feels like they have what it takes."
"I feel individually we've gotten better and as a team we've gotten better with the additions we've gotten," Dickerson said. "Yeah, I'm excited. In baseball, you have to get better each and every year. That's just how the game goes. I think we'll be good."