On paper, Nick Lee and Hogan Harris are adding to an embarrassment of riches on the mound for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette baseball team.
The Ragin’ Cajuns return all three weekend starters and the closer from last year’s NCAA super regional squad, and all four — Gunner Leger, Evan Guillory, Wyatt Marks and stopper Dylan Moore — were just freshmen last season.
Lee and Harris were acclaimed as Louisiana’s top two prep pitchers last spring at South Beauregard High and St. Thomas More High. They are now part of what could be coach Tony Robichaux’s deepest-ever mound staff.
But Robichaux said, in essence, to hold off on those accolades as it pertains to his newest talented arms.
“At the end of the day, both of those kids are still freshmen,” he said. “No matter how good a freshman is, a pitcher’s a little different because there’s no place to hide. You’re 10 inches higher than everybody else out there.
“But both of them will be fine.”
Having the right-handed Lee and the left-handed Harris ready adds to the anticipation for this weekend’s season-opening series against Sam Houston State. The Cajuns, coming off a 42-23 record in which they won 24 of their last 32 regular-season games and won the NCAA Houston Regional, host the Bearkats at 6 p.m. Friday on opening night.
Robichaux backed up his belief in both with his Tuesday pitching rotation announcement. Lee is slated for Sunday’s Game 3 start, following Leger on Friday and Marks on Saturday. Guillory is slated for next Wednesday’s road opener at Louisiana Tech. Harris is aimed at a closer role this weekend and is a likely fifth starter in weeks when UL-Lafayette plays two midweek games.
“I’ve been looking forward to this moment all my life,” said the 6-foot-5 Lee, a two-time Class 3A All-Stater who was a second-team prep All-America choice by Perfect Game and ranked in the top 24 among the nation’s high school right-handers last year. “I’m getting more excited every day.”
“I’m just going to do whatever role they want me in,” said the 6-foot-3 Harris, who led the hometown Cougars to two state titles and was a Perfect Game and Louisville Slugger high school All-American, along with being Perfect Game’s national No. 5 left-hander. “If they want me to start I’ll do that, if they want me to relieve I’m ready, whatever helps us the most.”
“We think he’s ready,” Robichaux said of Lee. “Guys like Gunner were a lot better at the end of their freshman year than the beginning, so we have to get them out there. We’ll let him sit and watch two games Friday and Saturday, and everybody else will head to the pen at this point. A lot of people will throw this weekend.”
Robichaux said that Harris provides a potentially dominating closer from the left side, something the Cajuns haven’t had in recent years.
“He’s going to really help us in the back end of the bullpen,” Robichaux said. “He’s got swing-and-miss stuff, and that’s what you want there. He can strike a guy out with a runner at third. He’s a lefty, so he can control the running game. That’s a luxury to have that kind of guy out of there. You’ll eventually see him as a big-time starter, but right now the best place for him and us is the back of the bullpen.”
Robichaux didn’t need the freshmen pitchers’ lofty national listings to know the talent that both have. And the success that his four freshman standouts had last season (a combined 17-6 record, 3.11 ERA and 14 saves) has paved the road for the duo to make a similar impact.
“The guys that were around, people have scout reports on them, they got video of them in postseason last year,” Robichaux said. “People haven’t seen them (Lee and Harris). That’s always an advantage that you can have, kind of like our freshman pitchers last year.”
It helps that both of the hard-throwers have taken Robichaux’s system to heart and readily admit they’ve come a long way from merely overpowering high school hitters.
“It’s learning to pitch instead of just throw,” Harris said. “I started to learn the system with Coach Robe back in the fall. Over here, you pretty much turn four pitches into, like, 15 different pitches that you’re able to throw, so it’s more just adapting to that.”
“You can’t just blow a fastball by people anymore,” Lee said. “It’s not high school, everybody’s geared up for 90, 92, so you have to work on spotting up more, throwing off-speed pitches for strikes. A couple of years ago, all I did was just throw fastballs and blow it by them, but now my slider and change are definitely improving a lot.”
Lee came out of a smaller prep program but had a reputation that grew well past the boundaries of Beauregard Parish by the time he was a senior.
“This is a big difference,” he said. “I came from a country-based high school, and it’s been a lot to take in. But having Coach Robe and knowing he was going to be my pitching coach, that was a big step in figuring out where I wanted to come.”
Harris, meanwhile, was well-known locally even before he became a pitching standout. Mother Tiffany was an All-American softball player for the Cajuns from 1992-95, and father Robert is the colorful and well-known announcer for that highly successful program in addition to being involved in a multitude of activities and causes in the Acadiana area.
“I’m glad they can come and watch me play now,” Harris said. “But they don’t try to over-involve themselves. They’re good at letting it be my experience. And having a close team like we do helps. In high school, you have the seniors, the juniors; but here, everyone’s the same group. It’s awesome.”