Early fall pays off for Southeastern Lions Baseball

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SLU Lions baseball

HAMMOND, La. – The Southeastern Louisiana University baseball program wrapped up its fall practice period in early October, giving the student-athletes plenty of time to recover before the spring and the coaching staff extra time for evaluations.

“It was a productive fall,” head coach Matt Riser said. “I thought we did a really good job of blending the new pieces together with the returners. We lost some key pieces on the offensive side, not a ton, but some key pieces in Preston Faulkner, Evan Keller, Nick Ray and Tristan Welch. We needed some of the new guys to step in and learn the system on the fly. I thought the returners did a great job in leading the way and showing them how we do things.”

SLU recovered from a rough opening stretch to the 2022 season to win the Southland Conference Tournament, advancing to an NCAA Regional for the fourth time in eight full seasons under Riser.

With a significant number of injuries impacting the Lions during the regular season, Riser and his staff revamped their thinking when it came to fall practice sessions.

“Last year, with so many injuries, we spent a lot of time and effort on finding the right design to get everything in that we wanted – to evaluate, develop and put in our system,” Riser said. “We put together a plan for an early fall and, so far, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I thought it was very beneficial for us because of the number of guys who stayed this summer and worked out with our strength coach, Kyle Vagher, and our athletic trainer, Cruise Dunn. They were ready to go for an early fall.

“We had a ton of guys that were on the shelf at the end of last season,” Riser said. “Some have worked to get back already. It was really, really good to see Brennan Stuprich back in some type of capacity this fall with his stuff and velocity being back up where it needs to be.”

A potential rotation-fronting ace, Stuprich missed the entire 2022 season after earning Freshman All-America honors the year before. Plugging him back into a weekend slot will go a long way toward helping the Lions achieve their goal of a regular-season title.

In addition to a healthy Stuprich, the Lion pitching staff returns Trey Harrington, Andrew Landry, Hunter O’Toole, Dalton Aspholm, Will Kinzeler, Lance Lauve, Jacob Scherer, Hayden Robb, Reid Reynolds, Andrew Yuratich, Adam Guth, Jay Long and Ryan Peters.

“I thought Landry took a significant step forward for us,” Riser said. “He really started to fill the zone up, needing only 60 pitches during his five-inning stint during the Fall World Series.”

Position players returning for SLU include Bryce Grizzaffi, Tyler Finke, Champ Artigues, Connor Manola, Joe Delaney, Christian Garcia, Logan Shurden, TJ Salvaggio, Rhett Rosevear, Pierce Leavengood, Shea Thomas, Michael Curry and Ethan Butler.

“It was good to see Connor Manola fully healthy,” Riser said. “He’s battled some injuries throughout the years with us. Rhett Rosevear and Champ Artigues did a lot of work this summer to put themselves in a better physical condition to win a spot defensively. Pierce Leavengood did a fantastic job of changing his mentality. He looks like a veteran, much more confident in what he is doing. And our core leadership in Tyler Finke, Shea Thomas and Christian Garcia were really, really good.”

The newcomers joining the squad for the 2023 season include a pair of JUCO All-Americans in catcher-infielder Jake Killingsworth and infielder Ethan Moore and the 2021 Rawlings-Perfect Game National Pitcher of the Year in Jack Walker, a transfer from Mississippi State.

“I really enjoyed watching Killingsworth,” Riser said. “He has a chance to have a big career here offensively.”

Fresh faces on the roster also include pitchers Mason Creacy, Larson Fabre, Aaron Hosack, Jimmie Johnson, Dakota Lee, Brett Nestande, Carson Robb, Jackson Rodriguez, Connor Spencer and Triston Todorowski, pitcher/infielders Levi Bennett and Lakin Polk, infielder McGwire Turner along with outfielders Clay Cook, Dom Regira and Dane Watts.

“We added some pieces on the mound that we really needed,” Riser said. “Freshman Lakin Polk had a fantastic fall on the mound along with Hosack and Creacy. Then you have the X-factor in Jack Walker. Everybody knows what he was out of high school. I think he did a good job from where he was at the beginning of the fall to the end of the fall developing into what he needs to be.”

Polk hails from just down the road in Ponchatoula, Louisiana and Watts prepped at Hammond’s St. Thomas Aquinas High School. Carson Robb is the younger brother of redshirt senior right-hander Hayden Robb.

“We added some pieces in Dakota Lee and Connor Spencer, two real guys coming out of the junior college ranks,” Riser said. “Levi Bennett is a great option there as well. And once we have the Robb brothers both healthy, we can have a really strong staff.

“The bullpen has a chance to develop into one of the deepest we’ve had here,” Riser said. “Lance Lauve took tremendous strides at the back end. His velocity is back up to 95. Dalton Aspholm is the veteran anchoring things down. If he can continue to progress the way he did at the end of last year that will be huge for us.”

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