After back-to-back Southland Conference Tournament titles and a regular-season crown, what’s next for the Cowboys?
Having built and established a winning program, head coach Justin Hill has an even tougher job to stay on top.
This is where the real questions surrounding college baseball come in. Who stays and who leaves will decide how much restocking McNeese State will have to do next season.
“They’re all back until they say they’re not coming back,” Hill said. “You don’t know with the draft (July 17-19) and everything, but they’re all saying they want to come back. We’ll see.”
Reid Bourque and Julian Gonzales, the two pillars of the program, are certainly gone. The two played over 200 games and contributed to the success of the Cowboys.
They are the bridge to the pre- and post-storm days. The duo consisted of defense-first type players and program leaders.
“These five years have been great,” Gonzales said. “We were lucky to come here when there was a great culture with great leaders and to build on that.
“We tried to leave him in a better place.”
It is now up to those who return to keep that culture going, Hill said.
Two possible returns are Brad Burckel and SLC Player of the Year Payton Harden. Both have pro career thoughts, but with smaller minor league systems and fewer draft rounds, they could also benefit from staying put.
Harden is two hits off the Cowboys’ all-time record of 254 set by Joe Provenzano while Burckel could return as the league’s best all-rounder.
“I’ll have to wait and see what I’m going to do and what my options are,” Burckel said.
Harden finished the season leading the league with an average of .378 despite a slow start. He drove in a career-high 44 points and stole 26 bases.
Burckel, an all-SLC selection at second base, hit .373 to finish second in the league. He hit 10 homers and drove 44, both tied for the club lead. He was also a perfect 18-for-18 in stolen base attempts.
Tré Obregon is a guy who wants to come back and intends to do so. Limited to 15 games per injury, the switch-designed hitter hit .357 with two home runs and 11 RBIs in 15 games.
He requested an additional year from the SLC and the NCAA.
“I think I’ll be back,” Obregon said. “I really don’t want it to end in injury. I want to play for another year.
Three other hitters with averages above .300 could also be back. Andruw Gonzales (.354), Josh Leslie (.331) and Braden Duhon (.329) are still eligible after playing a big role in this year’s success.
Leslie fought back from injury to hit six home runs and drive in 33 in 39 games. Duhon scored 32 points and brought home 37, mostly from first place after taking over in right field.
Kade Hunter, who hit .282 with seven homers and 33 RBIs, also has remaining eligibility. He took over the role of DH when Obregon fell.
SLC pitcher of the year Grant Rogers is expected to return after a 7-4 season that saw him post a 4.26 ERA. Ty Abraham and Bryson Hudgens are hoping to return from season-limiting injuries, and with Chance Stone fully recovered, Hill said McNeese has the start of a solid rotation.
Hudgens was supposed to be the staff ace, but injured his arm four innings into the season. He’s in rehabilitation but hasn’t pitched yet, Hill said.
With the wounds from the Championship Series loss still fresh, Hill said there was hope for a third title in four years.
It all depends on who stays and, more importantly, who stays healthy.