Amid weekend full of ceremonies, Demons face McNeese in pivotal series

While the Northwestern State baseball team will stand on a couple of ceremonies this weekend, the final home series of the 2023 season holds plenty more importance than that of good feelings.

The Demons host longtime rival McNeese in a three-game Southland Conferences series that begins at 6:30 p.m. Friday at Brown-Stroud Field. All three games of the series, which also includes a 2 p.m. Saturday matinee and a 1 p.m. Sunday series finale, will air on ESPN+.

As has become custom, the Demons (25-21, 10-8) enter the final two weeks of the conference season within striking distance of the conference lead. With six games to play, Northwestern State sits two games back of league-leading Nicholls.

“This is the most fun time of the year – playing for things,” seventh-year head coach Bobby Barbier said. “Playing for a championship, tournament seeding, all those things. You’ve got kids who are graduating and in an exciting time for them. Other guys who haven’t graduated are finished with school and kind of get the pro baseball life. It’s a good time for us.”

The Cowboys (31-16, 11-10) have won three of their past four games, including taking two of three from Lamar in their last weekend series. McNeese leads the SLC in victories and in winning percentage in all games and will become the first team to complete its league slate.

In addition to hosting alumni of the program, this weekend marks the final set of home games for a quartet of NSU seniors. The Demons also have a large contingent of players who have at least one year of eligibility remaining past this year who already have earned their undergraduate degrees.

Among the 11 NSU players who took part in spring commencement exercises Wednesday and Thursday were eight who have a year remaining on their collegiate athletic clocks. Seven of those players are fourth-year juniors – the lone exception being Saturday’s starting pitcher Alex Makarewich (5-4, 5.11), who earned his degree in three years.

Because of the COVID-19-affected 2020 season, all but one of NSU’s graduating juniors – relief pitcher Dawson Flowers — has spent at least three seasons in a Demon uniform.

“Personally, I’ve probably grown closer to more guys on this team than I have any other team because of that – the time we got to spend together,” Barbier said. “It will be tough for us because you only get to coach this team, this collection of players, once. It will be tough when it gets to the end. Hopefully, there is a lot of baseball left before the end.”

The results of the next two weekends will determine how much time the Demons have remaining, but the first challenge for Northwestern State comes in the form of Grant Rogers, the reigning Southland Conference Pitcher of the Year and a midseason All-American by who is 10-0 with a 2.00 ERA.

NSU defeated Rogers a season ago, touching him for seven runs (four earned) in 2 1-3 innings in a 16-12 Demon win in the series opener in Lake Charles.

“It’s a big test for us, but I think we’ll be ready for it,” Barbier said. “We’ve faced some really good guys in the league and on other teams we’ve played before. It comes down to executing pitches, and the reason he is where he is because he’s done that a bunch of time. We like our guy on Friday night. We like Cal (Carver). He can really execute pitches too. It will be a good fight.”

Carver (5-3, 4.93) is one of the four true Demon seniors and one of the 11 who graduated this week. He will take the mound in Friday’s series opener, making the 43rd start of his NSU career, which will tie 2016 All-American Adam Oller, who has spent parts of the past two seasons with the Oakland A’s.

Carver needs 13 strikeouts to establish a new school career record. The left-hander from San Antonio, Texas, already has moved into the top 10 in career innings pitched this season (252 1-3, 9th) and is two wins away from a three-way tie for ninth in school history.

Offensively, Carver’s mirror image has been outfielder Jeffrey Elkins, who broke the program’s career home run record April 29 against Nicholls. In addition to his home run record, which stands at 34, Elkins owns top-10 career marks in RBIs (131, 5th), runs scored (154, T-6th), at-bats (717, 7th), doubles (42, T-7th), hit by pitch (32, T-7th), games played (204, 10th) and hits (192, 10th).

With seven more runs scored this season, Elkins would move into a three-way tie for 10th on NSU’s single-season list.

“They’ve both been really good students,” Barbier said. “They’ve been good teammates. They’ve done what we’ve asked them to do over the course of their four or five years. It’s neat to see them achieve some personal goals. Their teammates are happy for them, and it will be cool to honor those.”

Series Probables:

Friday: McNeese RHP Grant Rogers (10-0, 2.00) at Northwestern State LHP Cal Carver (5-3, 4.93)

Saturday: McNeese RHP Bryson Hudgens (0-0. 0.00) at Northwestern State RHP Alex Makarewich (5-4, 5.11)

Sunday: McNeese TBA at Northwestern State RHP Drayton Brown (4-6, 6.06)