Jay Artigues had one request when he stepped down as baseball coach and took over as athletic director at Southeastern Louisiana University.
He wanted to be able to name his successor of the baseball program.
His first major decision as AD — naming a young, unproven Matt Riser as baseball coach — didn’t go over particularly well with some of the Lions’ fan base.
“A lot of people looked at me and some made some comments to me that he was too young and not ready,” Artigues recalled. “But I know what Matt is. He is one of the best young coaches in this country, and he is the guy who can take this program to the next level.”
One season in, the 29-year old Riser has made his former boss look like a genius. Riser, one of the nation’s youngest Division I coaches, guided Southeastern Louisiana to its first berth in an NCAA regional in 20 years.
The Lions will play regional host LSU on Friday at 2 p.m. at Alex Box Stadium.
Some of Riser’s players weren’t even born in 1994, the last time the Lions played in a regional.
Heck, Riser was barely old enough to remember it himself. He was only 9 at the time.
So beating host Central Arkansas last weekend to capture the Southland Conference Tournament championship (and earning the automatic NCAA postseason berth that came with it) is something Riser will cherish forever.
“On the bus ride back from Conway (Arkansas), it took awhile to sink in,” Riser said. “But this ride is not over. We’re not done yet. We are here to go win this thing. That was just Step 1.”
It’s a step the Lions have come oh-so-close to making the past two seasons when Artigues was the coach. They lost in the Southland Conference tournament title game both seasons.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better situation,” said Riser, an assistant under Artigues for six seasons. “What Jay had built here, he had all the pieces in the right place. Obviously I didn’t want to go to a program and rebuild where it would take three or four years to do it. I wanted to go in a program that had a chance to win right away. We had built this thing the last six or seven years and put a lot of time and effort into it.”
And there was plenty of building to do, according to Artigues, who soaked it all in on Monday as former players joined in to watch the viewing party for the announcement of where the Lions would be playing.
“This is definitely a special day, an emotional day,” Artigues said. “I know where this program was 10 years ago, averaging 10 wins a season. You look at the former players who came here and were there from the beginning. To see it built up over the nine years and with Matt winning a championship, I can’t express the emotions I have. When I hired him I told him we got to this level and I need him to take it to the next level, and he did just that.”
Artigues knew Riser would. He had coached him as a player at Pearl River (Mississippi) Community College in the early 2000s.
“I saw the same thing in him as a coach as what I saw in him as a player,” Artigues said. “Matt was one of those players who just refuses to lose. He is going to make his team better, whether he is a player or a coach. That’s the sign of a great leader.”
Riser credits his coaching success to those who coached him along the way, from his early days of playing recreational ball to his high school days at Picayune (Mississippi), where he was an All-State outfielder, to his junior-college days under Artigues, to his two years at Tulane under Rick Jones.
He calls Artigues a mentor and a brother.
“And I will forever be indebted to coach Jones just for his whole demeanor about the game of baseball,” Riser said. “Not just the game side, but the business side as well. Being able to deal with the day-in and day-out struggle. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here.”
Riser played on the 2005 Tulane team that made it to the College World Series. Three months later, as Riser was preparing for his senior season for the Green Wave, Hurricane Katrina came. The team relocated to Lubbock, Texas.
“Matt’s leadership during that time was something that was unprecedented,” Jones said. “There was no manual to go by when you are dealing with something like that. Having a senior captain like Matt is the kind of guy you need to get through something like that. So what he is doing at Southeastern doesn’t come as a surprise at all.”
The players aren’t surprised either, despite playing for a guy who isn’t much older than them.
“I think it helps being young because he relates to us,” outfielder Andrew Godbold said. “But whether he is 29 or 50, I think that he would be the same coach. That wouldn’t change because he’s got that fire and that passion and that intensity that is unmatched by most coaches.”
It’s that passion that has Riser not being satisfied with just making it to a regional. He has much bigger aspirations, despite entering the regional as a No. 4 seed and having to go through perennial power LSU. He has his sites set on Omaha, Nebraska, home of the College World Series, which ends on June 25. Riser turns 30 that day.
“The reason I am in this business of coaching in Division I is I love Omaha,” Riser said. “I played there as a player and I want to go there as a coach. The biggest thing for us is to continue to fight. We are here now, so why waste the opportunity. Let’s take this thing as far as we can.”