McNeese State Shows Resolve After 3-22 Start




Baseball seasons are supposed to begin with hope. McNeese State's began with brutal reality. In January, the university announced structural problems at the program's campus ballpark, in need of repairs since 2001, had worsened, resulting in the demolition of the stadium's 1,200 seats.

The school had finally received money for repairs in 2005, but when Hurricane Rita followed Hurricane Katrina and dealt more than $20 million in damage to the campus in Lake Charles, La.—including more than $400,000 to the baseball complex—the $300,000 for improvements went to merely repair the ballpark's new damage.

When even the temporary fixes at the field weren't going to be ready by the Feb. 16 home opener against Louisiana Tech, forcing the series to be moved, head coach Chad Clement decided enough was enough. He resigned after four games. A school press release quoted Clement as saying his heart wasn't into coaching. But he told the Lake Charles American Press, "I'm taking a stand for them to say something has to change in the hierarchy at McNeese State. Somebody has to be held accountable."

Whether Clement's message gets through to administrators remains to be seen. The players seemed to get the message, though: Baseball wasn't a priority at McNeese State. A dispirited team lost its first nine games and spiraled to a 25-game mark of 3-22.

"So much hit our guys in such a short time," interim head coach Chris Fackler said. "The biggest challenge was psychological, getting them some confidence. It's important to have some self pride, and some team pride, and that wavered with us, no doubt."

Putting The Past Behind Them

Fackler, along with first-year assistants Joel Bocchi and Ted White, took on the job of trying to reverse the program's negative momentum. A former McNeese State player and Pirates scout, Fackler's only head coaching experience was one year at St. Louis High in Lake Charles.

Despite his inexperience, Fackler has rallied his team, turning the Cowboys from one of the season's worst stories into one of its best. He held individual meetings with every player on the team at the 25-game mark, and he said it helped players focus on the future instead of the ugly past. McNeese swept league foe Nicholls State and won nine of its first 14 league games, putting it second, behind league favorite Lamar, in the Southland Conference's Eastern Division.

"It's been a total 180 from late February to now," Fackler said.

Five players have played key roles. Scouts say senior outfielder Charlie Kingrey is one of the area's best college hitters, and he had a career-best 11 homers to go with .345/.424/.648 overall numbers. He benefited when Fackler moved junior third baseman Bryan Cartie (.354/.466/.523) behind him in the order.

Junior righthander Derek Blacksher is just 3-4, 4.91, but that's after he opened the season 0-4, 8.00. He rebounded to throw three straight complete games, using a high-80s fastball and 12-to-6 curve to beat Nicholls State, Northwestern State and Southeast Louisiana and striking out 34 in 27 innings. He has teamed with fifth-year senior lefthander Chris Denton (5-3, 3.17) and freshman Sam English (1-3, 5.40) to give the Cowboys a trio of weekend starters who keep them in games.

Focusing On The Finish

With an inexperienced coaching staff, senior catcher Joe Hulett has proven invaluable. The son of former big leaguer Tim Hulett, Joe Hulett is a contact hitter with savvy behind and at the plate. He was on a school-record 22-game hitting streak, but more importantly had served as one of the team's key leaders. "He's one of the smartest players I've been around," Fackler said.

Where McNeese's season ends up is anyone's guess. Last year's team went 35-20 and won the Southland regular season title, but did not get an at-large NCAA tournament bid after going 0-2 in the conference tournament. Again, the Southland looks like a one-bid league whose season will come down to the May 23-26 conference tournament.

From McNeese State's standpoint, there would be some justice if the Cowboys won the league tournament and got to regionals after how 2006 ended, and how 2007 began.

"We have a lot of seniors," Bocchi said. "You can sense with our older guys—they don't talk about it—but there's a sense of unfinished business. It's the old saying—it's not how you start, it's how you finish."

You can contact John Manuel by sending e-mail to johnmanuel@ baseballamerica.com.