Having won five NJCAA Division II World Series titles in the past decade, the most recent of which came last year, the LSU-Eunice baseball program has been a model of elite consistency.
As it prepares for a repeat, though, starting with its season-opening three-game series against North Lake College this weekend, coach Jeff Willis said there’s some uncertainty about his current team.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” Willis said. “With losing the clientele we lost off last year’s team, there’s a lot of holes and a lot of pieces that have to be put together.”
That’s especially true of the pitching staff. The Bengals will break in an all-new weekend rotation and must replace the likes of Mitch Sewald (who went to TCU), Ben Braymer (Auburn) and Sam Walley (Southern Miss), who combined to go 34-3 while striking out 323 batters in 259.1 innings last season.
“We’ve got some pitchers back off our staff, but we don’t have the pitchers back that pitched a lot of innings for us,” Willis said. “That being said, they’re very talented. The unknown is the experience factor.”
Sophomore Erin Baldwin, who is committed to Sanford University, will start Friday’s season-opener.
Baldwin went 1-0 in 14 appearances last year, striking out 26 in 29 innings.
“He’s taken a step forward compared to where he was last year ... that being said, he doesn’t have a lot of innings under his belt at the collegiate level,” Willis said.
Braxton Smith, a Sam Houston State transfer who had a “tremendous fall,” will start Saturday, and Willis said sophomore Clay Moffitt will likely work his way into the rotation when he recovers from an injury he suffered last fall.
Willis anticipates getting a look at just about every arm at his disposal this weekend, thanks to a 60-pitch limit he’s imposing on his pitchers.
“If you average 15 pitches an inning, you may get four innings out of those starters,” Willis said. “So our whole entire pitching staff will have an opportunity to throw this weekend.”
There are some questions to be answered in the lineup, as well.
The Bengals will be without first baseman Steven Sensley (UL-Lafayette), who clubbed a school-record 21 homers and drove in 80 runs last season.
They are also replacing shortstop Brennan Bozeman (Central Florida), who not only hit .315 and stole 35 bases, but also won NJCAA Division II National Defensive Player of the Year.
While he noted his team slugging percentage is probably going to take a hit without Sensley in the middle of the lineup, Willis said this LSU-E team will look more like previous versions, when the Bengals took control of games on the bases.
“This year we do not have a guy that’s going to hit 21 home runs, so we’ll be back to stealing more bases and manufacturing more runs,” Willis said. “I think the key for our team this year, on the offensive side, is we have more team speed.”
And, as is usually the case with the Bengals, their lineup will feature a heavy component of future Division I baseball players.
Third baseman Nick Coomes hit .299 with five homers a year ago and will play at LSU next season. Left fielder Will Watson signed with Maryland and center fielder Zach LaFleur recently committed to the Cajuns.
They have plenty to replace from last year’s 49-10 team, but they’re eager to get on the field and prove their worth.
“They’re tired of beating up on one another,” Willis said. “I think they’re really ready to play somebody else.”