When Southeastern baseball coach Matt Riser sat down with his coaching staff three years ago and mapped out the direction he saw his program going over the next few seasons, he had a pretty good idea of what the Lions were capable of.
“We knew in 2014 we’d have a chance to do some things,” Riser said.
For the first time in 20 years Southeastern reached the NCAA tournament.
“We thought 2015’s club would depend on a couple of JUCO guys panning out the way we wanted them to,” he went on.
The Lions set the Southland record for most conference wins in a season (25), most consecutive conference wins (14) and the school record for most wins (41) as well as clinched the program’s first Southland Conference regular season title.
But the past two seasons were extra, as far as Riser is concerned.
The 2016 season has always been “the year.”
Southeastern returns seven starters from last season — not including the return of now first baseman Jameson Fisher and now designated hitter Sam Roberson from season-ending injuries — and two of its three weekend starting pitchers. Fisher and Roberson were previously starting catchers.
Of those returning, only third baseman Taylor Schwaner and Saturday starter Max Sceroler aren’t a junior or senior. Schwaner will likely sit behind junior college transfer Derrick Mount for the foreseeable future but will see playing time when Mount goes to the mound as the closer.
“It’s a veteran club that we feel has the experience to weather the storm,” Riser said. “There’s going to be good parts of the season and bad parts of the season, and the biggest part of this sport is being able to handle the bad parts and get out of them as quick as possible. And this team is seasoned for that.”
The only area the Lions suffered a major loss is their starting rotation, which lost Tate Scioneaux and Jake Johnson to the draft.
Combined, the loss of Scioneaux and Johnson costs Southeastern 19 wins, 204.2 innings and 181 strikeouts.
The only starting pitcher to stay in Hammond for his senior season is Kyle Cedotal, who is the opening day starter. Mac Sceroler will be the Saturday starter, and Domenick Carlini will start Sundays.
“There’s something special going on here right now,” Cedotal said. “We’re going to have a great club and do some special things. We lost some arms, but we returned a lot of hitters. We got a bunch of arms that were ready to step in, and we’re going to be a pretty big force this season.”
The biggest question for the Lions will be how they responded to nine months of thinking about their abrupt end to the most successful season in program history.
Despite all of the accolades and records, Southeastern was eliminated from the Southland Conference tournament after only three games and failed to garner an at-large bid to an NCAA tournament.
Riser said the disappointment has been a driving force this offseason for what he called the most motivated and prepared team he’s ever been a part of, with players focusing on doing the one extra rep that could be the difference between a postseason run and sitting at home come June.
“We’ve all had that in the back of our mind,” said centerfielder and reigning Southland Player of the Year Jacob Seward. “We’ve been paying with a bit of a chip on our shoulder and we’re ready to get out there and prove ourselves again this year.”