Under The Radar: McNeese State Gains Strength From Adversity

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McNeese State coach Justin Hill found out how special his club was at a low point of the season.

After winning the first game of a doubleheader on April 1 against Southeastern Louisiana, the Cowboys were locked in a 4-4 game in the nightcap.

In the ninth inning, Southeastern Louisiana catcher Evan Pace hit a ball that right fielder Nate Fisbeck made a play for and missed, injuring his knee.

As Fisbeck struggled to get up, Pace sped around the bases with the potential winning run. Still, Cowboys players and coaches did not turn their attention to the ball. Their first thought was of plucky sophomore Fisbeck. Fisbeck, meanwhile, had no intention of letting the game get away.

“Nate got up and somehow hobbled all the way to the fence,” Hill said, “and prevented the run from scoring (Pace ended up at third). Of course, we don’t live in a fairytale and the next guy hit the ball up the middle (to win the game).

“But what I told our guys was, ‘When you saw Nate fall down, we didn’t care that we were about to lose, our only concern was Nate.’

‘“What that tells you about Nate was he was thinking about us,’” he told his club. ‘”When you’re not thinking about yourself is when you’re at your best.’”

Fisbeck was lost for four to five weeks with the knee injury, but since that loss, McNeese State has won seven in a row overall, and 14 in a row at Joe Miller Park in Lake Charles, La. The Cowboys overall are 26-10 and lead the Southland Conference with a 16-2 record.

McNeese State’s hot streak has pushed it to No. 14 in the RPI. The Cowboys are 21-0 against teams ranked 101+ in RPI and have picked up solid top-100 wins against the likes of Missouri State and Rhode Island. They also upset Louisiana State, 5-4, in a much-anticipated home game.

Nearly half the Cowboys’ losses came on the second weekend of the season when they were swept in a four-game series at Arizona, now the sixth-ranked team in the country.

“They are as good as advertised,” Hill said. “They played really well, we did not. But going through that was great for our team. We had some opportunities to win ballgames and we didn’t take advantage, and that bothered our guys and helped drive us.”

Hill couldn’t have known how much that sweep would drive them. The Cowboys have had three straight 30-win seasons—something the program hadn’t done since 1998-2000, at the end of current Mississippi head coach Mike Bianco’s tenure at McNeese State—and are on pace for a fourth.

The Cowboys are led by their offense, one of the best in Division I. They have hit .315 as a team, which ranks 15th in the country and they are tied for 18th in runs scored. Six players are hitting .300 or better, led by Matt Gallier (.383) who leads the club with nine homers, and 2015 Southland freshman of the year Joe Provenzano, while Mitchell Rogers is hitting .299. Junior college transfer Robbie Podorsky has been a sparkplug, with 26 steals and a .392 on-base percentage.

Hill said the Cowboys’ success at the plate is not unexpected.

“I knew they were all capable,” he said. “I think I’m surprised how quickly they’ve jelled. The order hasn’t changed much since Opening Day and that’s something that doesn’t happen. The length of the lineup has been good for us, something unique for us. Podorsky gets on, and Ricky Ramirez Jr. . . . is kind of a run-making machine, Provenzano’s numbers speak for themselves.”

Hill was quick to credit hitting coach Nick Zaleski for the offense’s consistency.

“They work, they stay late, do stuff on their own, they work from day one, and that’s all staged out by Nick Zaleski.”

The coach of a team that played the Cowboys this year said they play smart.

“They made big plays when they needed them,” he said. “They don’t give away games.”

The offense gets the headlines, but a rotation change also sparked the recent success, Hill said.

Senior lefthander Austin Sanders (4-2, 2.72) began the year as the Sunday starter. But after he beat Missouri State on Feb. 19, he moved to Friday and stayed there.

“Austin started in midweek last year and had some big wins . . . obviously there was the two-hit shutout against LSU. But the biggest difference is the consistency he’s shown. Ever since we made the transition from Sunday to Friday, there’s been something steady for our team. He’s not a machine, but he’s consistent in what he’s done.”

A big test looms for the Cowboys, who are 8-8 away from home. They began an eight-game road trip—with a loss at Louisiana Tech—Tuesday that will last almost two weeks before returning on May 2 for a game against NAIA LSU-Alexandria.

But Hill knows his team has the ability to weather just about anything.

“We’ve got some guys who’ve been through tough times,” he said. “We had a tough stretch last year when we were swept back-to-back weekends by Nicholls State and Stephen F. (Austin), and we lost eight of nine. That was a tough time for our kids, but hey they found a way to get back to (.500) and they did some special stuff that last weekend against Central Arkansas.

“The adversity this team has been through has forged something special and we’re enjoying the fruits of that right now. They’re pretty special.

“They’re a fun team to coach.”

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