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Balanced, versatile Lions are ready to roar

Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2020 | Views: 806

Balanced, versatile Lions are ready to roar

HAMMOND, La. – Ranked fourth in the Southland Conference preseason poll, and all the major industry publications, Southeastern Louisiana heads into the 2020 season looking to rebound from an uncharacteristically lackluster showing in 2019.

“We’ve brought in a crew of new guys,” head coach Matt Riser said. “They’ve done a good job getting accustomed to our style of how to do things both on and off the field. They’ve really bought in. When you get guys to buy in like that, with a little bit of toughness to them, you have the chance to do some really good things. We have a lot of expectations within, even if the preseason rankings are what they are. At the end of the day we know the end result will be the No. 1 factor for us. I’m excited to get this kicked off.”

Entering his seventh season at the helm of the Southeastern program, Riser sits just three career victories behind program icon Pat Kenelly (230 wins) for third place on the Lions’ all-time coaching list. He heads into the new campaign having to replace the largest senior class in the nation off a team that finished 33-27 overall.

“Obviously we lost a lot from last year, but the core guys returning are our foundation,” Riser said. “They’ve done a great job with leadership and work ethic. It’s a crew that’s extremely hungry to take this program to another level.”

The 2020 version of the Lions will have a sizeable home-field advantage, playing 30 games in the friendly confines of Pat Kenelly Diamond at Alumni Field, but will open the year on the road for just the second time in Riser’s tenure and only the fifth time in the last 15 seasons.

Opening Night, the Lions face host UL Lafayette (Feb. 14) at 6 p.m. before turning around Saturday at 6:30 p.m. for a neutral site contest against Louisiana Tech in Lafayette, Louisiana. The home opener follows Tuesday at 6 p.m. against the No. 24-ranked Ragin’ Cajuns.

“Being at home, the crowd helps energize our guys to play at a different level,” Riser said. “We’ve got one of the best gameday atmospheres in the entire country. When we can play in front of that it helps us do what we need to. At the same time, we need to do a much better job of protecting The Pat. Unfortunately, we did not play well at home last year. We played tough competition and will again this year.”

Despite the advantage, last season Southeastern logged a better record on the road (19-14) than it did on its own turf (14-13). The road ahead is not easy. The Lions host four different ranked teams this season in addition to the always grueling Southland slate of games.

“We don’t shy away and have been fortunate enough to bring in some quality teams because of our gameday atmosphere and fan base,” Riser said. “It works to our advantage. The RPI is another part of this and when you’re trying to build this schedule you look for a half-and-half mix. We were just fortunate enough to get a few more of these games at home.”

One thing that should play to the Lions’ advantage in 2020, both at home and on the road, is a versatile, offensive-minded ball club.

“I think, position player-wise, this is the deepest we’ve been in a long time,” Riser said. “We’ve got the perfect balance of being physical, where we can hit the long ball with some teams, the speed where we can run with some teams and play some small ball, and approach at the plate to cut down on our strikeouts and give us more opportunities to create some runs. Hopefully, its an offense that generates 400 runs this season.”

One of the key returning players for Southeastern is catcher Connor Manola. The redshirt sophomore will help ease the transition for new pitching coach Kaleb Manuel.

“Your commander-in-chief, the one guy who can see the entire field, needs to be a seasoned veteran,” Riser said. “Connor got plenty of time behind the dish last season and will be our main force again this year. His knowledge of the game and what he brings to it, working with our pitchers, goes above and beyond any stat line you can put out there. Our staff works off his heartbeat. He is calm when the moment calls for it and knows how to elevate it at the right time. I don’t know that you’ll find one better at it than Connor.”

Manola caught the bulk of Southeastern’s schedule last season, but Riser is blessed with a versatile squad that will allow him to spell his field general at times throughout the season.

“We’re fortunate to have a few other guys that can help us keep Connor rested,” Riser said. “Evan Keller, our shortstop, caught his freshman year on the national championship team at LSU Eunice. He has a ton of feel for the game with the ability to keep our pitchers calm and collected, but also competitive.”

A pair of talented freshmen will also factor into the mix.

“Bryce Grizzaffi’s energy is off the chart,” Riser said. “At times it’s almost too much, but with a true freshman you’d rather have to pull the reins in than kick the horse in the behind. He has big-time energy and a big-time arm. If he can control the emotions, he’ll be a really nice addition behind the plate. Unfortunately, Clint Hargrave is down right now. If he can get healthy, he’ll be another defensive option for us as well.”

# NAME CL POS B/T HT WT Hometown Previous School
5 Connor Manola R-SO C R/R 6-0 180 Port Allen, La. Brusly HS
6 Evan Keller JR IF/C R/R 6-1 187 Destrehan, La. LSU Eunice
16 Bryce Grizzaffi FR C/IF R/R 5-10 175 Morgan City, La. Central Catholic HS
36 Clint Hargrave FR C R/R 6-1 205 Tallulah, La. Ouachita HS
41 Greg Thompson JR C R/R 5-11 205 Zachary, La. Zachary HS

The hot corner proves to be the position returning the most experience for the Lions in 2020. Trey Harrington returns after hitting .242 with 11 extra-base hits and 27 RBIs.

“Trey is a major-league defender at the hot corner,” Riser said. “His arm strength, aptitude, glove and footwork are all perfect for third base, but he will have someone pushing him. Eli Johnson has had a really nice spring and is also an elite defender. I told Eli if he can hit, he’ll be on the field in some capacity.”

Johnson, who saw his name penciled into the starting lineup 15 times last season, fielded at .968 clip last season. The senior from Chehalis, Washington committed just one error in 30 chances.

“Eli will get an opportunity because of his defense, and if he can have success offensively in those moments, he will definitely push for time at third.”

Up the middle, Riser has plenty of options.

“Keller will be our starting shortstop Opening Night, but Tyler Finke is a versatile infielder with elite speed,” Riser said. “At second base it will be a combination. With his speed and the ability to play multiple positions, Finke will see time there as well as our probable Opening Night starter Champ Artigues.”

A graduate of Hammond’s St. Thomas Aquinas H.S., Artigues transferred back home after redshirting at Louisiana Tech in 2019. He’s expected to make an impact offensively, already named one of D1Baseball’s Top 150 Impact Freshmen (No. 78) and their pick for the Southland’s Freshman of the Year.

“Champ has that maturity factor and is a coach’s son,” Riser said. “He knows the game, knows how to run the infield and be that leader you want in the middle. His bat will play big for us as well.”

The Lions also have a veteran hand to turn to throughout the season.

“Johnny Johnson has experience no one else on this club has,” Riser said. “He’s played in a regional. That experience will pay huge dividends at the end of the season. You’ll see him play second base and some third base as well.”

A senior transfer, Johnson turned in an all-conference performance in 2019 at Southern and was a key member of LSU Eunice’s 2018 national title squad. Another transfer in the mix is Anthony Hickman, Jr. who redshirted last season at Mississippi State.

First base was up for grabs this fall, but it appears Riser has another all-conference caliber player ready to claim the position.

“Preston Faulkner has looked tremendously comfortable at first base,” Riser said. “We’ve been trying to find a position since Preston got here. Obviously, his bat was going to be in the lineup regardless, but we won’t lose a step defensively.”

A Preseason All-Southland selection, Faulkner hit .273 with a team-leading 17 doubles and 11 home runs last season while splitting time between designated hitter and left field. He will have a challenger or two bidding for playing time.

“Jacob Burke will also log some time at first base,” Riser said. “He’s a big-time hitter, very similar to Preston. There’s a maturity in his approach that will let Jacob contribute his freshman year. He’s worked tirelessly to improve around the bag defensively. He could be our starting DH and then mix in some time at first. We have a left-handed option in Trevor Rugg. He has big-time power. If the bat continues to come on, he’ll force our hand. We also have Bo Gatlin. He plays corner infield and just finds a way offensively to get it done.”

# NAME CL POS B/T HT WT Hometown Previous School
1 Johnny Johnson SR IF/OF R/R 5-9 175 Baton Rouge, La. Southern
2 Tyler Finke SO IF/OF R/R 5-11 165 Columbus, Ind. Snead State CC
3 Elijah Johnson SR IF R/R 5-10 195 Chehalis, Wash. Tacoma CC
4 Champ Artigues R-FR IF L/R 5-9 175 Hammond, La. Louisiana Tech
6 Evan Keller JR IF/C R/R 6-1 187 Destrehan, La. LSU Eunice
13 Trey Harrington JR IF R/R 6-2 176 Arlington, Tenn. Briarcrest Christian HS
16 Bryce Grizzaffi FR C/IF R/R 5-10 175 Morgan City, La. Central Catholic HS
20 Christian Garcia FR IF/OF R/R 5-11 175 Slidell, La. Northshore HS
22 Preston Faulkner JR UT R/R 6-1 230 Denham Springs, La. Live Oak HS
23 Jacob Burke FR IF R/R 6-0 200 St. Francisville, La. University Lab School
26 Trevor Rugg JR IF L/R 6-3 210 West Monroe, La. Paris JC
28 Bo Gatlin FR IF R/R 5-11 185 Oxford, Miss. Oxford HS
29 Anthony Hickman, Jr. R-JR IF R/R 6-0 200 Kiln, Miss. Mississippi State

The Lions return one outfield starter, but redshirt sophomore Nick Ray will be shifting positions once again.

“Nick has turned himself from a high school shortstop to an elite defender in the outfield,” Riser said. “He played a really good left field for us last season as a redshirt freshman and can make the move over to center. Nick has plenty of range and speed to hawk balls down to go along with above-average arm strength.”

Last season, Lion fans saw flashes of Ray’s talent. The native of Jefferson, Louisiana was named the conference hitter of the week following a three home-run performance against Abilene Christian.

Flanking Ray will be a host of newcomers.

“Brandon Hale embodies so much of what we want offensively – from the power at the plate, where he could be a double-digit home run guy, to speed on the bases, where he could run up double-digit steals. He has plus arm strength and plus range in the outfield He’ll run down some baseballs for sure.”

The transfer from Jones County J.C. hit .355 for the Bobcats with a team-leading 21 doubles, 50 runs scored and 22 stolen bases.

“I think the latest surprise in this freshman class, and we’ve talked about a few of them, is Christian Garcia,” Riser said. “He got the start in the Alumni game with a couple of guys out with the flu and showed well. He will remind of a lot of people of Ryan Byers. There some flashes of elite strength and elite speed, but he’s also a plus defender in left field with some arm strength.”

Riser has a host of talented options still vying for playing time.

“There are some other guys out there: Matt Taylor and Brant Husser,” Riser said. “We don’t lack in the speed department or the ability to chase down the ball in the outfield. The one who wouldn’t shock me to emerge is Kenneth Bell. He’s got the speed and the power at the plate but needs to continue developing his offensive approach. He looks really comfortable in center field and, just like Nick Ray, is a high school shortstop transitioning.

# NAME CL POS B/T HT WT Hometown Previous School
1 Johnny Johnson SR IF/OF R/R 5-9 175 Baton Rouge, La. Southern
2 Tyler Finke SO IF/OF R/R 5-11 165 Columbus, Ind. Snead State CC
10 Matt Taylor JR OF R/R 5-11 175 Pulaski, Miss. Pearl River JC
11 Brandon Hale JR OF R/R 5-10 180 Pontotoc, Miss. Jones County JC
12 Nick Ray R-SO UT R/R 6-2 200 Jefferson, La. Jesuit HS
14 Brant Husser R-FR OF/P L/L 5-11 166 Central, La. Central HS
20 Christian Garcia FR IF/OF R/R 5-11 175 Slidell, La. Northshore HS
22 Preston Faulkner JR UT R/R 6-1 230 Denham Springs, La. Live Oak HS
32 Kenneth Bell, III FR OF R/R 6-1 175 Hammond, La. Hammond High

The 2020 season will also be a transition year on the mound for the Lions who must replace starters Corey Gaconi and Mason Knopp along with closer Jared Biddy.

“When we signed both Trey Shaffer and Will Warren, we knew that by their junior year they would be two of the premier arms in the Southland Conference and this entire area,” Riser said. “They’ve shown it to date. Numbers can be a little deceiving when you look at ERAs, but the performance was better than what was transcended in the numbers. Both guys have had a really good fall and spring. They’re elite talent.”

Riser didn’t hesitate when it came to which one of the two he would run out as his Friday starter.

“Shaffer with what he’s going to run out with attitude and competitiveness, and his command now,” Riser said. “He’s done such a good job working extremely hard. Focusing solely on pitching, the concentration, time and effort he’s put in on the mound have translated. Trey fills the zone up with a quality, four-pitch mix. He has an elite fastball and spin rate.”

Warren is looking to build off a gut-check late in the 2019 season.

“Will took his step forward last year in the conference tournament,” Riser said. “I went to him in the fifth and said if we’re going to win this thing I need you for the next couple innings. He shut them down and allowed us to win that ballgame, advancing deeper into the tournament. I thought that was his moment of growth where he became an upperclassman, taking a leadership role.”

Riser will round out the rotation with a pair of returners looking to take the next step.

“Trey and Will are going to be our 1-2 anchor,” Riser said. “We have a lighter staff in terms of numbers, but the quality of arms we have at the top end can carry us pretty deep. Returners Justin Simanek and Grant Upton threw significant innings for us last season and we look for both of them to take a step forward. Grant will transition into a starting role. He throws so many strikes and fills the zone up with three quality pitches. Justin has some elite stuff with a fastball that can run up to 94 mph. He’s also got a slider and changeup. If he can throw enough strikes, we’ll have another horse we can ride.”

The rotation will be back by a talented, if largely inexperienced staff.

“The kicker in all of this will be two things, how our freshmen adapt and our returners,” Riser said. “I really like our freshmen arms, Dalton Aspholm, Dalton Rogers, Ryan Keeley, Landon Rawson, Christian White and all those guys. They can give us some quality innings on the mound. Then there are our upperclassmen, Noah Hughes, Corbin Bozosi, Kyle Flettrich and Daniel Dugas. If one of those two sides of the group can do it, we feel like this is a team that can be extremely strong and has a chance to win a regional. If both sides do it, then its coaching that screwed all of this up because it’s an elite staff.”

Injuries to Landon Clifton and Matt Flowers have opened up opportunities for some time on the mound that might not otherwise be there for position players like Harrington and Grizzaffi.

“At the end of the day, the No. 1 question we’re going to have is trying to figure out the back end. We’ve had a couple of injuries in the preseason, that we’re going to wait for these guys to get healthy, so early season might not be the same look you get late. We’ll use some of the more veteran guys in relief early, who may emerge into starters by the end of the year once we get the bullpen figured out.”

# NAME CL POS B/T HT WT Hometown Previous School
7 Will Warren JR P R/R 6-2 175 Brandon, Miss. Jackson Prep
8 Dalton Rogers FR P R/L 5-11 165 Brandon, Miss. Northwest Rankin HS
14 Brant Husser R-FR OF/P L/L 5-11 166 Central, La. Central HS
15 Trey Shaffer JR P L/L 6-1 180 Biloxi, Miss. Biloxi HS
19 Noah Hughes R-SR P R/R 6-3 205 Ridgeland, Miss. Hinds CC
21 Daniel Dugas JR P R/R 6-0 200 Pearl River, La. Delgado CC
24 Justin Simanek SR P R/R 6-4 215 Kent, Wash. Tacoma CC
25 Grant Upton SO P R/R 6-3 200 Baton Rouge, La. University Lab School
27 Dalton Aspholm FR P R/R 6-0 190 Baton Rouge, La. Central HS
30 Corbin Bozosi R-JR P L/L 6-0 185 Keller, Texas Northeast Texas CC
31 Landon Clifton JR P R/R 5-10 190 Napoleonville, La. LSU Eunice
34 Matt Flowers FR P R/R 6-2 186 Fulshear, Texas Cinco Ranch HS
35 Kyle Flettrich R-SR P R/R 5-9 195 Belle Chasse, La. Delgado CC
37 Ryan Keeley FR P R/R 6-3 200 Naperville, Ill. Wheaton Warrenville South HS
38 Landon Rawson FR P R/R 6-1 185 Kosciusko, Miss. Central Holmes Christian HS
39 Christian White FR P R/R 5-11 160 Florence, Ala. Central HS
40 Robert Burke JR P R/R 6-4 210 St. Francisville, La. Northwestern State
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