The Southeastern Louisiana baseball program had the reputation of being mediocre at best for much of the last three decades, but fortunes have changed in Hammond under the direction of a Picayune native.
When Matt Riser took over as the Southeastern Louisiana baseball coach in 2014, he led the Lions to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1994.
Following Wednesday night’s 11-5 drubbing of Mississippi State in Biloxi, it’s easier to understand why the postseason has become commonplace for Riser’s Lions.
The SELU squad was obviously thrilled to take down another SEC power in Biloxi, but the Lions acted like they had been there before — and that’s because they have. SELU is 2-1 against SEC competition this season, including a 5-4 win over LSU on Feb. 28.
“We’re still not getting the recognition we deserve, but we’re on our way there,” SELU freshman left-hander Trey Shaffer, a Biloxi native, said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
Junior right-hander Corey Gaconi played the role of hero, throwing a complete game to pick up the victory. He gave up five earned runs in the first inning and recovered to shutout the Bulldogs for eight straight.
“We knew if he’d get through (the first inning) he’d settle in and he did,” Riser said Wednesday night.
On the rise
SELU has reached an NCAA regional in three of Riser’s first four years on the job and there’s good reason to believe the team is again headed in that direction. The Lions stand at 13-6 overall and 2-1 in the Southland Conference headed into this weekend’s trip to Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.
“It’s still early, so we’ve got a lot of things to get cleaned up,” Riser said. “There’s no doubt the talent is there and we have returners on the mound that can help us, but there’s still a long way to go. If they compete this well, they’ll give themselves a chance.”
The Lions have the swagger that you’d expect from a program that expects to compete for a conference title each season.
“Expectations have changed for us,” Riser said. “It’s not getting to a regional anymore. It’s trying to win a regional and go deeper to the Super Regionals and Omaha.”
Riser’s baseball career has its roots in Pearl River County, where he was a Sun Herald All-South Mississippi selection at Picayune. He also played at Pearl River Community College, helping lead the Wildcats to a MACJC championship, before joining the Tulane program.
Riser is only 33 years old and his performance as head coach at Southeastern Louisiana should grab the attention of administrators with baseball programs that feature much better facilities and more resources.
The Lions play in a modest ballpark, Alumni Field, that has a capacity of 2,000, and they operate on a smaller budget along with the rest of the Southland Conference.
Perhaps Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen, a former Bulldog baseball coach, should give Riser, who has a 157-84 record at SELU, a close look as he begins the search for the Bulldogs’ new head coach. Gary Henderson is currently leading the MSU program on an interim basis following the resignation of Andy Cannizaro early in the season.
If MSU doesn’t give him a chance, another school will in the near future.