It was cold and wet as day turned to night over Dudy Noble Field last June. The Louisiana Tech Diamond Dogs found themselves inside the visitors’ clubhouse, waiting through a rain delay, before playing to advance to a Super Regional for the first time in program history. This was fitting, considering how 2016 was a season of firsts for Greg Goff and his Bulldog baseball team. The first time to reach an NCAA Tournament Regional since 1987. The first 40-win season in the modern era. The first time sending multiple players to the MLB draft since 2013 (Taylor Terrasas, Sam Alvis, Ryan Gebhardt). It was clear for anyone privileged enough to witness the 2016 season, that it was nothing short of magic. Unfortunately, it all ended on that same cold, wet night last summer as the Bulldogs fell to their Starkville counterparts 4-0.
Now, eight months later, a new season looms over the horizon. This Friday night, at the corner of Tech Drive and Alabama Avenue, we’ll once again hear the unique, all-familiar ‘ping’ of the bat that only college baseball can bring. However, as the Diamond Dogs take the field against Arkansas Pine-Bluff to kick off the 2017 season, some things will look different. Greg Goff, the intense and passionate, yet lovable coach who took the program from cellar dwellers to tourney regional contenders, is now the head coach at Alabama. Now, newcomer Lane Burroughs — most recently the head coach at Northwestern State —steps into Goff’s position and plans on recapturing the magic that got the Dogs to Starkville last summer. Prior to his four years as manager in Natchitoches, Burroughs spent eight as an assistant at C-USA rival Southern Mississippi. There, he helped coach the Golden Eagles to five NCAA tournament regional appearances. Then, he quickly turned Northwestern State into Southland Conference contenders before accepting the job at Louisiana Tech. There is no questioning Burroughs’ ability to win and get the most out of his players, but how will that translate to a team coming off arguably the best season in program history? All we know is that you’re going to want to watch.
The addition of Burroughs is obviously new for the Bulldogs, but not everything is changing. The team’s top seven hitters — whom powered an offensive juggernaut down the stretch last season — will all return. Chase Lunceford (64 hits last season) leads the pack at third base, while junior catcher Brent Diaz could breakout as an offensive star (according to Starkville locals, he hit the deepest blast that any of the fans had ever seen at Dudy Noble Field). The ‘dogs will be counting on more of that kind of power from him and his fellow hitters come Friday night.
Not only do the Bulldogs return power at the plate, but will have plenty of veteran leadership returning to the rubber as well in Casey Sutton and Nate Harris. Sutton, a big righty, is a for sure starter, while Harris will continue his role as a super utility reliever. Both posted season ERAs under 3.00 while only losing 3 games between them last year. Newcomers to the staff include Matt Miller, who will be expected to take over the closing duties, and Kent Hasler, another likely starter who has shown promise. Losing utility outfielder Taylor Love and short stop Chandler Hall to graduation/the MLB draft hurts defensively, but JUCO transfer and utility infielder Dalton Skelton is expected to step in and provide stability. As if Tech fans needed any more incentive to watch what is sure to be an exciting ball club, those who decide to spend their weekends at JC Love Field could be in for a treat when they see the athleticism of dual sport athlete and expected 2017 starting quarterback, J’Mar Smith, in the outfield.
Overall, Tech returns fourteen seniors from last year and, per Coach Burroughs, the regional appearance has the team hungry for more playoff baseball. However, it’s a task that embodies the phrase “easier said than done.” The Bulldogs boast one of the toughest schedules in one of the toughest baseball conferences in the country, highlighted by non-conference home series’ against perennial national powers Arkansas and Wichita State. They will also travel back to Starkville for a one-and-done before beginning a home-and-home with in-state power Louisiana-Lafayette. As tough as the non-conference slate looks, the interleague games only look tougher. Tech will host C-USA contender Southern Miss, then travel to Rice during the first weekend of April for what are sure to be a couple of classic showdowns between the budding rivals. Last year’s final home series was memorable to say the least, as Tech brought the brooms out against Rice — including what will likely go down as the greatest single game in ‘The Loveshack’s’ storied history. This year’s equivalent will be a home bout against a Marshall team who, like Tech, is coming off a surprise breakout season. Finally, all teams will converge on Biloxi for a tough Conference USA tournament that will be crucial to securing an NCAA regional bid.
Last season was an amazing journey, not just for the Bulldog baseball team, but the entire program and every baseball fan in Ruston. This year, the road won’t be easy, but it will undoubtedly be fun to watch. It all starts Friday and, with any luck, the end will be somewhere well beyond a wet, summer night in Starkville.