TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – The time has finally arrived for the McNeese Cowboy baseball team.
Nearly a year has passed, 346 days to be exact, since the Cowboys last stepped foot on a baseball diamond against an opponent. Not to mention having to prepare for the 2021 season without a home of their own due to hurricanes Laura and Delta, sharing living quarters because of no dorms or apartments, finding ways to wash their own clothes because of no other option with no clubhouse or locker room.
All of that will still be in the minds of the Cowboys when they open up the season at 25th-ranked Alabama on Friday at 3 p.m. on the SEC Network+, but the never-say-die attitude the entire region has adopted during the worst natural disaster to ever hit the area and McNeese, will be ready to let loose what the last 346 days has forced the Pokes to keep bottled up.
Friday’s game will carry a 3 p.m. first pitch while Saturday will follow with a 2 o’clock start and Sunday’s finale at 1. All three game will broadcast live on the SEC Network+ streaming site.
“It’s an emotional moment,” said head coach Justin Hill. “This weekend will be an emotional moment in a lot of ways for a lot of people. Everybody on our bus has gone through something. Just getting to play, being a part of a game. There’s going to be reminders all over the place whether it’s having to wear a face covering. The reality also is it’s going to be 40 degrees on Friday. Our success this weekend is going to be determined on playing the game well.”
McNeese will face one of the nation’s top pitchers in the Crimson Tide’s LHP Connor Prielipp on Friday, a first-team All-American who can touch 100 mph with his fastball. McNeese will counter with 2019 Freshman All-American Will Dion, a preseason All-SLC first team selection, and will follow up with redshirt freshman RHP Ty Abraham on Saturday.
Alabama posted a 16-1 record and was ranked No. 21 before COVID shut down the baseball season last March while McNeese, the defending Southland Conference Tournament champions, went 10-7 and about to open up conference play when the remainder of the season was canceled.
Hill said he’s expecting to pitch several players this weekend but will wait on announcing a starter for Sunday until after Saturday’s game.
“Pitching is always going to be important for team success,” said Hill. “But this year will stretch teams’ depth like no other with the number of doubleheaders and the ever-present concern of availability due to COVID.
“We have a good mix of guys who have unique strengths. We have some pitchability guys who can turn over the line-up a couple of times, some guys who are really strong in short stints and quite a few ‘hybrid’ guys who can fill a variety of rolls.
“I expect to see a lot of guys take the mound this weekend.”
Behind the plate, returning starter Brett Whelton (.326-1-6) will get a majority of the opportunities but the battle for the No. 2 spot is a heated one between Schuyler Thibodaux, Matt Keller, Ben David and Kade Morris.
Jake Dickerson will start at first base once again and is coming off a 2020 season where he was hitting .415 with four home runs and 18 RBI before the season was halted.
“Jake has turned himself into one of the best defensive first basemen I’ve ever had,” said Hill. “He is one of our more inspiring leaders.”
In the middle (second base and short stop) the Cowboys return a great combo in Reid Bourque (.362-1-8) and Nate Fisbeck (.286-2-16). Both have been named to the preseason All-Southland Conference first team.
“They could be the most entertaining middle infield in the country,” said Hill of the duo. “I’ve seen it for three years now and they practice the same way as they play – they play the game with great joy – they are great competitors and have an unbelievable rapport.”
Kade Morris, Jordan Yeatts and Braden Duhon have all taken reps on the infield as well as Ricky Munoz, who according to Hill, is a dynamic defender.
At third base, there’s some competition for the starting nod among Peyton Johnson, Morris and Yeatts. Johnson started 14 games in 2020 and hit .327 with six extra-base hits and 13 RBI.
“This is the hardest one right now,” commented Hill. “They each bring something different to the table and trying to compare their skill sets really isn’t fair to them. It’s hard to ignore the start to the season PJ had in 2020. Kade has matured greatly over the past year and Jordan is as tough of an out at the plate when he plays tough.”
Three returning starters make up the outfield – Clayton Rasbeary (.246-2-4), Payton Harden (.356-0-12, 4-6 SB) and Julian Gonzales (.259-2-12, 3-5 SB). Rasbeary is a preseason all-conference first team selection while Harden has been named to the second team.
Tré Obregon has been penciled in at the designated hitter spot.
“He has swung the bat well our entire time together and helps give us balance with all the left-handed hitters we have,” said Hill bout Obregon.
Hill is bringing his entire lineup to Alabama – 45 players.
“The reality is, there are 45 players on the roster and only 10 can be in the line-up each game. How those 10 handle their opportunities and how the 35 respond, every single day, that will tell you what kind of team we will have. The good team will continue to improve and work to be ready for their moment.”