Monday, May 21, 2018

Pushing Expectations: Riser enters Year 5 leading Lions

Posted: Friday, February 9, 2018 | Views: 501

Pushing Expectations: Riser enters Year 5 leading Lions
By Rachel Studley

HAMMOND, La. – When Jay Artigues was promoted to the position of Southeastern Louisiana’s athletic director in June 2013, he immediately began a nationwide search for his successor as head baseball coach.

But no candidate seemed ready to implement Artigues’ ultimate vision for the baseball program. With the right head coach, he believed that the Lions could potentially become a Southland Conference powerhouse and maybe even compete for a national championship.

After all, the program had already begun making a name for itself. At one point during the 2010 season, the Lions were leading the Southland Conference in five offensive categories, fueled by the performance of junior outfielder Cass Hargis.

Then, Artigues realized that his perfect contender was actually a few steps away from his own office – specifically, a 29-year-old hitting coach and outfield assistant named Matt Riser.

Six years earlier, the Pearl River Community College alum had arrived in Hammond after a single season as a strength and conditioning student assistant with the Tulane Green Wave following his playing career, and his sharp baseball mind influenced Artigues to impart as much wisdom and confidence as he could.

“Through the experience in the six years of coaching underneath [Artigues], there were a lot of positive things he showed me,” Riser said. “The one thing he always tried to do was prep me to be ready if, one day, I did get the opportunity to be the head guy. Everything he did, he tried to make sure I was ready to go for my next step, [where I’d have to be] responsible not just for myself but for everybody.”

So, Artigues made a gutsy decision: hire Riser, despite doubts from people around the Southeastern community who questioned whether he had the experience or raw composure to take over such a lucrative position.

On the other hand, Riser’s determination and competitive spirit largely won over his players, and it even worked as a recruiting tool.

“The age didn’t even affect my mind,” said former outfielder and All-Southland Conference pitcher Kyle Cedotal. “I knew he had been at Southeastern for a long time, [and] Jay had a lot of confidence in him. He was the one who recruited me, and he’s one of the reasons I came to Southeastern.”

Armed with the respect of his players and former college skipper, Riser forged full steam ahead in his first season as head coach. In the 2014 season, the team grabbed 38 total wins and 18 conference victories, then brought home its first Southland Conference title.

The next year brought even more success, when the team collected a phenomenal 42 wins – still the school record – and surpassed the Southland Conference mark for league wins with 25.

With Riser at the helm, the Lions followed their stunning 2015 season by appearing in back-to-back NCAA Regionals, the initial one being the first at-large bid in school history.

Despite bringing the program to a much larger stage, Riser isn’t satisfied with getting into the NCAA Tournament. The goal is even emblazoned on the doors to the locker room, where a piece of looseleaf reads: Don’t come in unless you’re coming to Omaha.

“When I got this opportunity five years ago, we had been knocking on the door and now we’ve done that,” said Riser. “Going forward, it’s not about getting there anymore. It’s about winning [the tournament], getting on to the Super Regionals and Omaha. That’s the expectations on a daily basis that we work towards.”

The accolades continue in the professional ranks, as well, since the school has sent 12 players to the MLB Draft in Riser’s time as head coach. Respectively, the two most recent draft classes included much-awarded catcher and first baseman Jameson Fisher, the Lions highest overall selection since Wade Miley, and ace pitcher Mac Sceroler – taken in the fifth round of the 2017 draft by the Cincinnati Reds.

He has also seen three consecutive Lion hitters – outfielder Jacob Seward (2015), Fisher (2016), and infielder Taylor Schwaner (2017) – recognized as the Southland Conference Player of the Year.

This, combined with Riser’s record of 157 career wins and two Southland Conference championships, has drawn intrigue from several programs throughout the country – all of whom were eager to hire Southeastern’s successful young coach for their vacant positions.

“It’s a form of flattery that people have taken notice, not necessarily of what I’ve done, but what we’ve done as a program,” Riser said. “We continue to go out there with a chip on our shoulder, trying to prove that we’re bigger and better than what we’ve been in years past.”

Accompanying this place in the national spotlight, Riser was also selected as one of 25 featured speakers at the American Baseball Coaches Association convention in Indianapolis this January. Throughout the weekend, he shared the stage with reigning World Series champion A.J. Hinch (Houston Astros) and his college counterpart, Kevin O’Sullivan (University of Florida).

Riser’s speech focused on techniques in base running, which he considers to be a strength for Southeastern. Because of his assertive style, the Lions have swiped more than 100 bags in each of the last two seasons, ranking fifth nationally with 118 stolen bases in 2017.

Although the Southeastern baseball program has garnered many accomplishments under Riser’s command, he tries to avoid putting too much stock in the numbers. Instead, entering his fifth year as head coach, he wants to make sure that the players and the fans stay invested in the program for years to come.

For evidence of this dedication to the future, look no further than the renovations that were recently made to Pat Kenelly Diamond at Alumni Field. New bleachers and box seats have been added down the left field line, as well as LED lighting which enables the program to be featured in regional and even national television broadcasts.

Another way to maintain fan support is continuing to recruit the exact brand of player that has long dominated the Southeastern baseball program – mentally tough, strong and fearless on the base paths as well as the mound, and competitive.

One player who embodies these qualities is senior outfielder Drew Avans, whom Riser recruited in his final year as an assistant.

“Coming in, I had just found out that [Riser] was the new head coach,” said Avans. “Everyone talked about the aggressive mindset of [Jay] Artigues, and Artigues rubbed off on Riser. When I saw the aggressive mentality, I knew this was where I needed to be.”

If the last five years are any indication, Riser simply wants to be remembered not only for influencing the growth of the Southeastern baseball program but also for his focus on the attitude of his players.

“As the program continues to get passed on to the next group of seniors and they continue to take it further, they still understand the amount of work and demand,” Riser said. “The expectations continue to grow for us, and we’ve got to be tough enough to handle them on a daily basis. When you’re winning 35 or even 40 games, it’s not enough. We’ve got to bring it to the next level, maybe 40 or 45.”