Grambling’s SWAC run tops among area D-1 baseball programs

TOUGH TIGERS:  Grambling’s second-place finish in the Southwestern Athletic Conference was the best among the three local NCAA Division I baseball teams this spring. (Photo courtesy of Grambling State Athletics)

By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports 

Not much went as expected this spring for the area’s NCAA Division I baseball programs, but all three were at or above .500 in conference play.

Grambling was the big surprise with a second-place overall finish and a West Division title in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. The Tigers looked poised to win the SWAC Tournament but faltered just shy of the championship game.

Louisiana Tech was picked to win the Conference USA crown but things began to unravel in the season’s opening series when school RBI record-holder Cole McConnell was lost for the season. Major shortcomings in the bullpen hampered the Bulldogs much of the year but down the stretch, the bats kept Tech going.

Northwestern State was picked for fifth in the Southland and that’s where the Demons finished. But the same poll had the eventual champion (Nicholls) picked last and the preseason choice (Southeastern Louisiana) was the season-ending cellar-dweller. NSU’s Jeffrey Elkins broke the Demons’ career home run record in his senior season.

As for 2024 prospects, the transfer portal makes the crystal ball cloudy. Safe to expect lots of new faces at Tech and NSU and lots of anticipation at Grambling. 

Grambling (29-24 overall, 22-7 Southwestern Athletic Conference – second among 12 teams) 

SWAC Tournament – Grambling rolled to a winner’s bracket semifinal but was ousted in two straight games last Friday night and Saturday by Bethune-Cookman, which fell in the championship game to rival Florida A&M. 

Notes – The Tigers were outstanding in SWAC play under longtime assistant and first-year head coach Davin Pierre. but struggled otherwise. Grambling returns three All-SWAC hitters – Cameron Bufford (first base, .321 batting average, 12 home runs), Trevor Hatton (rightfielder, .305, 12 HR, 71 RBI, 27 steals) and Kyle Walker (second base.357, 25 RBI, 21 steals). 

Louisiana Tech (28-31 overall, 15-15 Conference USA – sixth among 10 teams) 

CUSA Tournament – The Bulldogs outslugged eventual tournament champion Charlotte in the opening game, but couldn’t go any further, dropping their next two. 

Notes – Frustrated to the boiling point at times from midseason on, coach Lane Burroughs sent no mixed signals. There will be a massive roster turnover at J.C. Field this summer. First-team All-CUSA performers Jorge Corona (catcher) and relief pitcher/infielder Ethan Bates can return. Seniors Jonathan Fincher (LHP) and slugger Philip Matulia will leave a void, but Tech could have 2023 Preseason All-America outfielder Cole McConnell back after a season-long NCAA suspension. 

Northwestern State (29-27 overall, 12-12 Southland Conference – tied for fifth among nine teams)

SLC Tournament — The Demons were third, with a pitching-depleted ninth-inning collapse costing them a game that would have gotten them to the championship round.

Notes – NSU set school season records for home runs (61) and staff strikeouts (469). The Demons won series over each of the Southland’s top five teams, but were 2-7 against the three teams at the bottom of the SLC. A 13-member senior class leaves plenty of openings. Freshman All-SLC third baseman Michael Dattalo flirted with a .400 batting average but faded in final two weeks to settle at .372. He’s the most likely of NSU’s four all-conference performers to return.

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