MONROE – The opponent is familiar, but the setup won’t be such in 2021.
The Northwestern State baseball team plays the first – and one of only three – mid-week game of the season Wednesday when it faces ULM at 6 p.m. at Warhawk Field.
The Demons (1-2) and Warhawks were longtime Southland Conference rivals before ULM headed to the Sun Belt Conference. Before the 2020 season was cut short by the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic, the teams had met at least twice every season since 2013.
“A lot of times we know a lot of those players,” fifth-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “Our players know each other. Coach Fed (Michael Federico) and those guys have done a good job, and they have a really good team. I know a lot of those guys on his staff. It’s their first game. Maybe they’ll have some early-game blues in their at-bats, but they’re usually ready to go.”
No one on the Demon roster is more familiar with the Warhawks than graduate transfer first baseman Cameron Horton, who spent the past two years at ULM.
Horton started the season opener at first base against Southern Miss and went 1-for-3 with a double in his first at-bat as a Demon ahead of his return to Monroe.
“It won’t be really emotional,” he said. “I’m excited to see the guys. You play with them for two years, and you become a family. I’m excited to be able to play against them.”
Much like the Demons, ULM was off to a fast start before the 2020 season was cut short. The Warhawks had won 12 of their first 15 games behind an offense that was hitting .316 and averaged 9.7 runs per game.
The Warhawks had pitched it well before the shutdown, working to a 3.46 ERA with 116 strikeouts in 130 innings.
Northwestern State will start junior right-hander Josh Banes (0-1, 1.32 in 2020) against ULM left-hander Cam Barlow (2-0, 4.38 in 2020). The Demons will treat one of their rare mid-week matchups this season like they do on occasion, offering plenty of pitchers an early-season audition.
“Josh will do a good job for us,” Barbier said. “He was one of our guys we trusted last year. We looked at him as possibly a fourth starter, but that will play itself out as we get into conference play and those four-game weekends.
“Some guys who were a little slow coming back for one reason or another will get their opportunity to pitch. We’ll schedule it out a little more than we would for a weekend. We’re trying to develop roles in the bullpen. We had a lot of guys hit the mound for the first time as a Demon this weekend, and they did great. They competed hard in the strike zone for the most part. We had some hiccups, but now we need to see if we can do it back-to-back, be consistent so we know what we’re getting. This game will go a long way toward that.”
While the Warhawks will play their first game since March 11, 2020, the Demons will continue to try to build an early-season rhythm after their opening-weekend series at Southern Miss was changed three times because of the winter weather and its lasting ramifications.
“It’s about playing,” Barbier said. “It’s about competing hard and getting better. I wanted us to be better in inning 18 Sunday than we were in inning one, and I thought we did that. We have to continue to do that.”
Horton echoed his coach’s thoughts on the early season.
“Just being able to play again,” Horton said about what he was most excited about when it came to Wednesday’s game. “Having last season cut short, I’m just really excited to be able to play again.”