Just moments before a pivotal four-game Southland Conference series this past weekend, the Northwestern State baseball team was without its head coach.
Bobby Barbier departed Brown-Stroud Field minutes ahead of Saturday’s 2 p.m. series opener against Nicholls, dealing with a non-COVID-19-related medical issue that ultimately kept him from coaching any of the four games against the Colonels.
Instead of panic and uncertainty bearing down on the Demon dugout, the NSU coaching staff leaned on its familiarity with one another and the culture they and Barbier have established to produce the Demons’ first four-game sweep in Southland Conference play this season.
“I’m not at all surprised,” Barbier said ahead of NSU’s Tuesday afternoon practice. “Bert (assistant coach Chris Bertrand), (assistant coach) Spencer (Goodwin) and even (volunteer assistant) Dan (Hlad) have been around me and us for a while. I would like to think if we take any part out of our organization – including myself – it would continue to run smoothly. We hope to build something that runs smoothly, even if you lose a part here or there.”
To the untrained eye, nothing changed for the Demons in their weekend sweep of the Colonels.
Although Barbier was not physically present, he was not far the remaining members of the Northwestern State staff’s minds – in both baseball and physical terms.
“You take inspiration from Bobby’s type of leadership,” said Bertrand, who has coached alongside Barbier since the latter was named head coach in June 2016. “You have seen that style be a proven winner since he’s taken over. You want to be yourself and you want to try to believe in your convictions and run it the way you want to run it, but at the same time, you want to make sure you don’t really get to the point where there’s so much change – or so much outside-the-box thinking – the players begin to feel like you don’t have a grasp of what’s going on. You don’t want them to ever feel there is a sense of panic or a sense of worry.”
That goes double for the Demon pitching staff, because Barbier doubles as the NSU pitching coach as he has for four of his five seasons in charge of his alma mater’s baseball team.
Hlad joined the Demon coaching staff in January, but he was familiar with Barbier’s system and thinking from his two seasons at Northwestern State. A right-handed pitcher, Hlad spent the 2017 and 2018 seasons with the Demons, starting the 2018 Southland Conference Tournament championship game.
Hlad has shadowed Barbier perhaps closer than any other assistant in the past three-plus months, putting him in a pivotal position when Barbier was unavailable for the four games.
“(Calling pitches) is probably the most impactful part of the game,” Barbier said. “What impacts pitch to pitch is the guy calling those pitches. One thing about Dan, he’s prepared. He watches those hitters on video like he’s the one who will be calling pitches and thank goodness he does, because I wasn’t able to do it.”
Like a successful starting pitcher, Hlad mixed and matched from his memory bank and showed a deft touch handling the Demon pitchers.
“(Having been a player under Barbier) was massive,” Hlad said. “Just being around when I was playing and being able to be around him more as a coach, learning from what he does and seeing what he does with the pitchers now and what he did with us when I played, I blended those tendencies and followed the plan with what he’s done in the past. It was a lot of what he did and trusting what he did. That’s why he’s been successful with the pitchers, myself included, for the five years he’s done it. It helped me be more comfortable, even though I was a little nervous that first inning.”
The trio of Bertrand, Goodwin and Hlad – along with graduate manager Trevor Wren – leaned on each other and their inherent personality traits to navigate an uncertain set of back-to-back doubleheaders that could go a long way to determining Northwestern State’s postseason fate.
The Demons and Colonels entered this past weekend’s series tied for fourth place in the Southland Conference standings at the midway point of conference play. In the face of the unknown, the Demons responded with their best performance of the season.
“In the moment, you try to simplify everything and realize we’ve got to take care of business,” said Goodwin, who played for and has been a graduate manager and a volunteer assistant under Barbier. “The change was big – your leader’s not there. The one thing coach Barbier has instilled in me as a player — and working my way up as a coach – is the ability to adjust and be flexible. That’s what we did as a staff.”
Bertrand highlighted the staff’s ability to communicate with one another as part of the reason for the smoothness of the weekend.
Staff communication is at the heart of the culture Barbier has built in his five years as a head coach with the Demons and the mantras that built “The Demon Way” prominently echoed about the first-base dugout this past weekend.
“When you listen to him talk to every new team at the beginning of the year, the first team meeting is always talking about the standards of the baseball program,” Bertrand said. “He talks about playing the way we play. The first practice of the fall always involves him telling us, ‘Hey, guys, we’re going to talk to them about how we want to play.’ Coming back from the long Christmas break, yes, we’re preparing for the season, but he tells them we’re going to play how we want to play – not to be results-oriented, but to focus on how we want to play. Over a five-year period of time, it becomes ingrained.
“That’s instilling the culture. For those of us who have been around – I say those of us because Spence heard it as a player and as a coach working up the ranks, Dan heard it as a player and as a coach working up the ranks – Lenni (Kunert), Tyler Smith, Peyton Davis, those guys have heard it for five years, six years for some. When you have a group like we have of cohesive coaches and veteran players, ‘The Demon Way’ becomes ‘The Demon Way’ under Bobby Barbier.”
Photo: Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services