EUNICE — The expectations remain high as ever at LSU Eunice.
For nearly two decades, the Bengals baseball program has been considered one of the best, if not the best, junior college baseball program in the country. Under the watchful eye of longtime head coach Jeff Willis (who is entering his 18th season at the helm), LSUE has claimed six NJCAA National Championships, made nine trips to the NJCAAA Division II World Series, recorded 50 wins or more a total of 10 times, had 14 players earn All-American honors, nine more receive ABCA/Rawlings Gold Gloves, five tabbed National Player of the Year and has sent dozens of players to four-year colleges such as University of Louisiana, McNeese State and LSU.
So despite losing most of its pitching staff, and some key bats from its lineup, from last year’s 51-win team, LSUE is still expected to be one of the nation’s best programs.
“We want to make sure we are making strides through all those seasons of our program,” said Willis who is 830-189 at LSUE. “We want to make sure to not peak too soon. I feel our team peaked too early last season and that’s why despite being ranked No. 1 for most of the year we fell short. We are determined to not let that happen again.”
LSUE opens up the 2020 season with a three-game series at Bengal Stadium against North Lake College. First game is Friday with first pitch at 6 p.m.
A strength of the Bengals in 2020 will be the top of the lineup.
River Town (Zachary High) will switch from center field to left field but will return to man the leadoff hitter role. Town batted .332 with 72 runs scored, 9 home runs and 47 RBI. Javier Vaz is moving from second base to center field because “his speed will play well in the center field.” Vaz batted .364 last season with 58 runs scored.
Jarrett McDonald (Sterlington High) meanwhile also returns and is coming off a season in which he batted .368 with 60 runs and 45 RBI. LSUE’s five-hole hitter Jack Merrifield (Dutchtown) also returns after blasting 6 home runs and 51 RBI during the 2019 season.
That level of experienced talent returning is valuable.
“Anytime you can get a second year player at the junior college level that has had success that is a huge advantage,” Willis said. “To have those four mainstays back and have them help set the tone allows us to build a great nucleus.”
Willis is hoping that nucleus includes freshman catcher Ayden Makarus of Alberta, Canada. Willis says that Makarus reminds him a lot of former LSUE star Stuart Turner who played with the Bengals from 2011-12 before moving on to Ole Miss and then making it to the big leagues with Cincinnati.
“He reminds a lot of Stuart,” Willis said. “His bat is going to play a little more. Anytime you get a guy that has opposite field power then you can turn the game with one swing. We are very lucky that he came to school and not playing pro ball.”
Makarus did require labrum surgery on his hip during the fall but has been officially cleared to play earlier this week but Willis says they will bring hi along slowly as a precaution.
Another player that is expected to make a huge impact is sophomore infielder Hunter Tabb (Acadiana High) who is going from backup to starter.
“Hunter had a tremendous fall and was leading us in home runs before he broke his hand and had to miss the final two-plus weeks. He took a big step forward. We are starting to see him become the player we had recruited.”
The big question mark for LSUE in 2020 is its pitching.
Andrew Sheridan (12-2, 67 Ks) is now at McNeese, Dane Dixon (13-0, 89 Ks) is at UL, closer Landon Clifton (team-high 8 saves) is at Southeastern Louisiana and Tyler Booth (4-2 in 13 games) has moved on to NAIA program Hope International University in California.
That is a total of 238.6 innings of experience gone from the pitching staff.
“We lost a lot of innings from last year,” Willis said. “That is the big question mark. We are going to be young on the mound. We are going to take a lumps and bruises early on but once we are six weeks into this we are going to be ready to go.”
Simon Miller, a freshman right hander out of Canton, Texas, will start the season opener and Willis believes that Miller has the stuff to become an ace for the Bengals.
“He is going to run his fastball between 89 to 94 miles per hour,” Willis said. “He has the ability and stuff to really take over the game by himself. He has shown streaks of that. He is freshman and needs to get seasoned.”
Another young arm that needs seasoning is Drew Lasseigne (Central High) who missed his senior season due to injury.
“He was hurt his senior season so not many people saw him,” Willis said. “Over the break he has developed a 80-82 slider. That will be a out pitch for him. He has the ability to to take over games.”
Willis expects his young pitching staff’s velocity to increase throughout February and into March, and the game plan is to keep the starters on pitch counts that will increase from 60 to 75 to 95 and then 100.
So with so many new faces, what are Willis’ expectations? High as always and expectations that will gradually climb higher throughout the season.
“You are looking at 70 games that you could possibly play during the spring,” Willis said. “The baseball season is not a sprint but a marathon and we have to treat it as such.”