Southeastern Lions Baseball: The more things change, the more they stay the same

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HAMMOND, La. – When aspiring Division I pitchers arrive to tour the baseball facilities at Southeastern Louisiana, it is not hard for the coaches to persuade them to make a commitment.

Once these young men walk through the front gates of Pat Kenelly Diamond at Alumni Field, the banners hanging from the stadium rafters proudly speak for themselves. They see the number of pitchers named Freshman All-Americans, as well as the names of Major Leaguers who started their careers at Southeastern – and they are mesmerized.

The lack of Power Five status does not pose an issue for players looking for competitive action while finding a role that adequately suits their personality and pitching style. Not to mention they are walking into a program that values consistency at all levels.

When veteran staffer Daniel Latham departed to take over pitching coach duties at Tulane University after the 2018 season, head coach Matt Riser hardly flinched. Within 24 hours, he promoted recruiting and academic coordinator Andrew Gipson to serve as Latham’s successor.

For the eight senior arms on the pitching staff, Gipson provided a familiar leader who understood the goals they sought to accomplish both individually and as a group.

One top objective would certainly be building upon the success that made the pitching staff into an example for other mid-major programs, which began before Gipson’s first season as a pitching assistant in 2015.

Leading the program to its first Southland Conference Tournament championship and first NCAA Tournament appearance in 20 seasons, Lion pitchers combined for a 2.51 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 2.92 ERA, ranked 26th and 27th in the nation, respectively.

The pitching staff refused to be upstaged by the Southland Conference champion offense in 2015, seeing dominant righty Tate Scioneaux break the school record for consecutive scoreless innings (36.1) and earn the Southland Conference Pitcher of the Week title three straight weeks.

Also worth noting, three members of the pitching staff were chosen in the MLB Draft that year – including 18th-round pick Kyle Keller, whose contract was selected by the Miami Marlins last month.

Left out of the NCAA Tournament field after the 2015 season, the pitching staff regrouped to have their most successful year under Gipson and Latham’s guidance. They ranked eighth nationally in ERA (3.01) in 2016 while logging a school-record nine shutouts and leading the Southland Conference in strikeouts (463) and opposing batting average (.235).

That season, four more members of the pitching staff heard their names called in the MLB Draft. Opting to return in 2017 after being drafted, all Mac Sceroler did was best Scioneaux’s scoreless-inning streak and improved his draft stock.

The diverse squad always seems intrigued by the prospect of having high expectations, since they have transcended the moment. In four of the five seasons that Riser has served as head coach, the pitching staff has finished among the nation’s top 35 teams in earned run average.

The 2018 season also marked the fifth consecutive year that the pitching staff has recorded 400+ strikeouts, another program record; they also issued the third-fewest walks per nine innings (2.47) in the country.

“No doubt, [the greatest strength of the starting rotation] has been throwing strikes,” said senior right-hander Corey Gaconi. “We don’t give up free passes and we make teams string together some hits. A lot of times, we find a way to win [the big games].”

With ongoing improvement as the staff’s resounding motto, one would be remiss to ignore the upgraded performances of Gaconi and another star, Carlisle Koestler.

In 16 starts during the 2017 season, Gaconi allowed 101 hits and only pitched a single complete game. The next year, he pitched three complete games – including the series clincher against Southland Conference-rival Sam Houston State and a crucial midweek contest against No. 19-ranked Mississippi State – and lowered his hit total to 80.

For his part, between 2017 and 2018, Koestler shaved his ERA from 5.03 to the fourth-best mark in the conference (2.68). He also struck out a team-high 73 batters in 2018, upping his strikeout total from 56 the previous season.

The Lions may be starting the 2019 season with a new pitching coach, but the attitude remains similar. Gipson intends to keep his pitchers focused on using an aggressive approach, underscored by generating soft contact and limiting the number of walks issued.

However, Gipson has elevated the importance of his players’ mental and physical conditioning to a more prominent role.

“We talk about how to take certain mental cues and how to take the game pitch by pitch so that every pitch has a life of its own,” said Gipson. “I think that compartmentalizing games into each pitch helps [the players] become mentally tough because you’re not thinking about anything else going on.”

This was partially accomplished during the fall practice season when the players were subjected to friendly competitions with their teammates that taught them how to strive for a common goal, overcome failure, and develop a strong work ethic.

Then, they will be ready for any situation that could arise during a game – and the moment doesn’t seem so big.

“We preach a lot about pressure, but we really don’t feel pressure when we go in the game,” redshirt junior Bryce Tassin explained. “The pressure is on the [other team’s] offense because they have to score the runs off us.”

Proving the program’s dedication toward maintaining a solid foundation, the coaches will continue to seek out quality pitchers who are enthusiastic about getting to work, independent, able to handle adversity, and most importantly, those who are highly competitive.

“We don’t recruit guys who don’t want to win,” Gipson said. “The standard is set by [the coaches], but it’s replicated by the seniors. They’re trying to get the underclassmen to do the same thing. You can’t do that unless those guys trust you, and one of the things that helps establish that trust is knowing that you’re putting in the same kind of effort that they are.”

SEASON TICKETS
A 27-game home slate at Pat Kenelly Diamond at Alumni Field in 2019 includes home series against Southland regular-season champion Sam Houston State and conference tournament champ Northwestern State. Key non-conference games include home matchups with South Alabama, Tulane and UL Lafayette.

Season ticket packages are still available, including general admission seats ($103) and a family plan that includes two adult and two youth (ages 3-12) general admission tickets ($206).

For more information, or to purchase season tickets, fans can contact the Southeastern Athletic Ticket Office at (985) 549-5466. Season ticket packages are also available for purchase online at www.LionSports.net/Tickets.

DIAMOND CLUB / S CLUB
Fans interested in becoming active supporters of the baseball program are encouraged to join the Diamond Club. Lion baseball alums are encouraged to join the exclusive S Club, which is restricted to Southeastern athletic letter winners.

All membership fees and donations to both the Diamond Club and S Club (baseball) are available for the exclusive use of the Southeastern baseball program. Membership information is available by contacting the Lion Athletics Association at [email protected] or (985) 549-5091 or visiting www.LionUp.com.

CLEAR BAG POLICY
Southeastern Athletics has instituted a clear bag policy for all ticketed events, effective with the start of the 2018 fall semester. The policy mirrors safety precautions taken upon entrance to professional and collegiate sporting venues throughout the country. For more information on the clear bag policy, visit www.LionSports.net/Clear.

SOCIAL MEDIA
For more information on Lions Baseball, follow @LionUpBaseball or @MattRiser17 on Twitter, @LionUpBaseball on Instagram and Facebook, and subscribe to the SLUathletics YouTube channel.

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