This time next year … Davis sets sights on returning Cards to NCAAs

Published 11:10 pm Monday, May 30, 2016

Will Davis could have been helping coach the LSU baseball team in yet another NCAA regional tournament at home. But when Lamar hired him in January to become its head coach starting with the 2017 season, Davis wanted to go right to work in Beaumont.

“I think it was a great thing coach [Jim] Gilligan had the idea to do this,” Davis said of his retiring predecessor. “I benefited tremendously from it. A coach texted me here yesterday, ‘Are you glad you went over early?’ and I said, ‘Of course.’ I had a better idea of what it takes to win here.”

Davis, who turned 32 Sunday, also got to mentor players who will return for his first year at the Cardinals’ helm, including seven regular starters. One of them, Southland Conference Hitter of the Year Reid Russell, started all but one game at left field.

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The Cardinals (35-19, 20-10 Southland) saw a 14-win improvement from last season and scored six victories against NCAA qualifiers LSU, Arizona, Southeast Missouri State (three-game sweep) and Southland regular-season and tournament champion Sam Houston State. But they also lost twice to SHSU, were swept in three games by Southland finalist Southeastern Louisiana and were defeated in a single game at Conference USA runner-up Rice, the latter two also making this year’s NCAA playoffs.

Still, Davis got to see firsthand what he thinks makes his new position at Lamar, which takes effect Wednesday, better than he initially thought.

“Just the talent level in Texas is so good from a recruiting standpoint,” he said. “I knew it was good, but I didn’t know how good it was and the type of players you can get at Lamar.”

Davis is close to releasing a list of signees for the 2017 season, but he said he’s waiting for “a couple” of players to see where they may land in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft. Locally, Zack Friesz of Nederland, Cole Girouard of Port Neches-Groves, Tod McDowell of Bridge City and Payton Robertson of West Orange-Stark have been reported to commit to Lamar.

Had Davis stayed in Baton Rouge, he would have been on the other end of a come-from-behind 12-11 victory for Lamar on Feb. 24. Gilligan, who was in the dugout that game, let Davis make the final calls in that game because of his familiarity with the Tigers.

That was just the first time locals got to see what Davis could do acting as head coach. Gilligan was sick two days later when Lamar began a four-game home set against North Dakota State, and Davis navigated the Cards to a 7-6 win on a ninth-inning Bryndan Arredondo home run. (Lamar dropped the next three games.)

And, Davis got to see the Cardinals beat a Texas team that would make a last-ditch surge into a Big 12 semifinal rematch against TCU before bowing out.

The 2016 Cardinals thrived on power hitting with 60 home runs and 113 doubles along with a .298 team average and six players hitting better than .300, led by senior Stijn van der Meer’s .376 in the leadoff role. Russell, a junior, homered 18 times and batted .354.

Davis was happy with the offense, but said he’s added more speed and left-handed hitters to the 2017 roster for more of an offensive balance and to counter against some of the Southland’s best right-handed pitchers.

“The power that we had enabled us to make some incredible comebacks, to be down 8-0 against LSU, down 10-1 at Nicholls [State], down at Corpus Christi by six runs twice and come back in one game,” Davis said. “When you have power, when you have guys who can hit doubles and homers in one game, that’s how you do that.

I want a team built for any occasion. I don’t want us saying, ‘Oh, man, the wind’s blowing and we can’t win today.’ I think we’ve done that.”

Davis also has been tasked with replenishing a pitching staff that is losing eight seniors, including All-Southland first-teamer Will Hibbs.

The 2017 Lamar schedule will include many opponents from this season, Davis said, naming Texas, LSU, Baylor, Rice, Houston and Oklahoma State (for a three-game series). Lamar will open the season at home with a three-team tournament against Illinois and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and visit the other named opponents.

“I think we have a chance to be good immediately,” Davis said. “Southeastern and Sam have been the best two teams over the last several years. They’re established and have an established winning way and system. I think it’s just getting that, what it takes to be the best instead of being the third-best or fourth-best.

“Obviously, we had a great year, but I’m not satisfied. I don’t want to be talking to you this day next year about the next season. We want to be talking about the regionals.”

I.C. Murrell: 721-2435. Twitter: @ICMurrellPANews

**CORRECTED to reflect Davis’ actual starting date as head baseball coach, which is June 1.**

About I.C. Murrell

I.C. Murrell was promoted to editor of The News, effective Oct. 14, 2019. He previously served as sports editor since August 2015 and has won or shared eight first-place awards from state newspaper associations and corporations. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee, grew up mostly in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and graduated from the University of Arkansas at Monticello.

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