First-year starters make their mark for St. Thomas More _lowres

Advocate photo by Buddy Delahoussaye- St. Thomas More's Grant Cox beats a throw back to second base as Catholic-BR shortstop Josh Smith is late on the tag in March.

St. Thomas More has an abundance of star power on its roster.

This year’s Cougars baseball squad has several of the area’s top college prospects, including LSU signees O’Neal Lochridge and Brennan Breaux as well as Louisiana-Lafayette signee Hogan Harris. Not to mention senior leadoff hitter Brandon Romero is being recruited by several state schools and junior Mason Templet has already committed to LSU.

As instrumental as those well-known stars have been to STM’s success this season, the Cougars wouldn’t have reached the Class 4A semifinals for the fourth-straight season without the help of several first-year starters.

No. 2 STM (28-9) plays No. 6 St. Michael the Archangel in a Class 4A semifinal at the Allstate Sugar Bowl/LHSAA State Baseball tournament in Sulphur at 7 p.m. Thursday on Field 41 at McMurry Park.

“They have been very impressive,” STM coach Gary Perkins said. “There are kids in the lineup right now that when we started practice back in January I didn’t know that they were going to be starters. I think they saw an opportunity to play in a good program, and they took full advantage of it. They are cashing in on it, and they are letting me know and the coaching staff exactly what they are capable of.”

Grant Cox is one of those older players that is cashing in.

After seeing limited playing time as a relief pitcher and outfielder his first three years, Cox has emerged as a versatile player. After STM’s starting rotation suffered injuries through the first half of the season, Cox stepped in and helped the Cougars on the mound as a starter and reliever. The Angelina College signee pitched 31.2 innings, struck out 35 hitters and went 2-3 overall.

Cox, who is also batting .302, admitted that it was a transition for him to go from on the bench to everyday starter.

“I was nervous at the beginning,” Cox said. “It takes a little getting used to. It is a lot different preparation because you are playing every day. It is not sitting on the bench. There is a lot more focus to it. You have to be more locked in to help your team. I just love it.”

Cox said that nerves won’t be an issue for he or his teammates in Sulphur as the Cougars try to repeat as state champions. The experience of being in that atmosphere, albeit on the bench, will be beneficial for the group.

“The last three years going down there watching you kind of take what you can from it,” Cox said. “You just learn to control the nerves and all of that. Yes, it is a different game and a different field, but you can’t hype it up. You just have to stay in yourself and stay in your game.”

Fellow senior Hunter Langlinais has also made the most of his opportunity also.

A year after being used primarily as a pinch hitter, Hunter is batting .296 with 20 runs and 20 RBI as a full-time starter, but his real contribution has been in the infield where he has manned first and second base. Hunter has a fielding percentage of .952 and leads the team with eight double plays.

“It is a lot different than last year,” Hunter said. “Last year I would go into a game and know that I wasn’t playing. Big difference from pinch hitting to getting a chance to hit three or four times a game. I am a lot more excited about playing and paying more attention to detail.”

Not only has Hunter got to experience being a starter for the first time in his STM career, he has gotten to do so while his younger brother Brennan has become a starter as well.

“This is the first time that I have been to play with him except for one year, when we played coach pitch together,” Hunter said. “Whenever he hit better than me one game, he didn’t let me live that down. We try to outwork each other. This season is one we are going to talk about when we get older.”

“It is kind of like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Brennan said. “It is special.”

The younger Langlinais started off spring practice as a backup, but as the season progressed the sophomore cemented himself as the starting catcher. Entering the semifinals, Brennan is hitting .348, slugging .652 and has two home runs in 15 starts, with a fielding percentage of .975.

“At first, it was a lot of pressure,” Brennan said. “I messed up the first few games with passed balls and stuff like that. I got tired of losing, and I wanted that No. 1 spot so I tried harder in practice and did it.”

Regardless of what happens in Sulphur, Perkins said he is hopeful that this year’s group of first-year starters will serve as inspiration for younger players next year. Just like this season, STM will be looking to replace another seven seniors.

“We’ve had some guys this year that have stepped in, and now we just can’t get them out of the lineup,” Perkins said. “Hopefully we got some young kids sitting on the bench right now that will seize that opportunity next year.”