Saturday Statements - Talking to a program builder

Other than St. Peter's making the quantum leap of improvement from last year (already 8-10 after going 10-43 last season), the second biggest off-the-radar story of the season is probably the vast improvement of Stephen F. Austin of the Southland Conference.

In just its second year back from an 11-year hiatus, coach Donnie Watson has turned a 15-41 team from 2006, into a competitve, .500-playing outfit already this season.

On my day off from covering the NCAA basketball tournament games in New Orleans, I managed to make it out to Alumni Field on the campus of Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. There, the Lumberjacks were playing game two of their SLC weekend series against the host Lions, trying to add to their respectable start to this season.

Unfortunately for the Lumberjacks, youth showed. The Lions blew open a close game with a five-run seventh inning to put the game away, winning 7-1. SLU, who I listed as part of my "surprise teams" last week, got a 6.1 inning, 10-strikeout, four-hit performance from starter Josh Black and a 2.2 inning, no-hit relief effort from Ryan Collins to improve to 16-5 with the win. SFA dropped to 11-12 overall and 0-2 in conference play.

But again, the underside of all this is the simple fact that the Lumberjacks are competitive. In fact, what opened my eyes early on was SFA beginning this season by splitting a pair of games at Texas Tech, losing in 11 innings in game one and winning game two 2-1. So from pitch one this year, the Lumberjacks have shown remarkable ability and the toughness to take on anybody.

The schedule isn't doing them any favors either. The first three weekends of Southland play are against three of the league's contenders - SLU this weekend, then Lamar, followed by surprising newcomer Central Arkansas. But it certainly isn't a road that Coach Watson's boys are going to seek any sympathy for. I suspect they'll have a solid season and probably make the six-team Southland Tournament at the end of the year - a great accomplishment for a program that, right now, is just 80 games old.

And it all starts with coach Watson's no-excuses mentality that seeps into the team from day one. I caught up with him briefly after today's game just to ask about how he got things going at the school and the current state of the program.

Me:
I don't think I've ever talked to a coach who has had to start a program from scratch like you have.

Coach Watson:
(laughs) Yeah. Well we are still at scratch if you ask me.

Me:
Well how tough has the process been?

Coach Watson:
(pause...) You actually have to start the process physically, mentally, emotionally, leadership-wise, you have to start all that, because you don't have anything. For example, Southeastern has had a great past. They've continued to compete for years. I mean, Jay (Artigues, the second-year SLU coach) has done a great job of getting those guys to believe in themselves and get the backing of the administration. And that's what we've just talked about. It IS difficult. We've had to re-open our lines of communication with the alumni that we haven't had for 11 years, you know, they're out-of-sight/out-of-mind all that time. Then, we don't have a stadium. We don't have a locker room. All these things you don't have, but you still have to go out there and compete. It's not easy and it takes time. We're getting there.

Me:
As far as backing from the administration, what has that been like? I know you guys got a new stadium going up soon. Are they good about giving you what you need - the resources and all that?

Coach Watson:
Yeah. I mean as a second-year program, we're already competing. That team (SLU) is the best in the conference right now, and except for one inning, we're toe-to-toe with them. You know, but getting that new stadium is great. It eliminates any doubt from the in-state guys we're recruiting that we're actually stepping up the program. Like when we played Baylor. They've got a bunch of young players. You take our kids and let them play in a facility like Baylor and they'll play to a higher standard. I believe that. Same thing happened when I was at TCU and we built Lupton Stadium. It was like we elevated our standards and it showed in the way we played.

Me:
Well I saw that you guys went 7-2 down the stretch last season, so did your team start to understand and buy into what you were doing?

Coach Watson:
Well, sometimes you are almost prophetically stupid, you know? (laughs) I told the kids that I really thought that we'd get schooled and tooled for about the first third of the season last year because we were playing the Baylors, the TCUs and the Arkansas. But I refused to back up and say, "let's play the also-rans" because I don't think you learn how to play the game against those teams anyway. But I told them, in the middle third of the season, if you have legitimate Division I talent and the mental capacity to handle the ups-and-downs, the travel, the schoolwork, the chasing girls, whatever, then in the last third of the season, we'll be as good as anyone in the conference. And we were.

Me:
And then, of course, you start out this Southland season on the road with the best team in the conference. I kind of wish I could've talked to you after a win today.

Coach Watson:
No. No. To me, it isn't about winning and losing when you're starting a brand new program. It's about being able to learn to play nine innings, learn to finish a game, learn to finish an inning, learn to play when the ball's not bouncing your way. That's what the Texas' and LSU's learn how to do. They expect, even when things go wrong to be able to work their way through it until the bounces start going their way. We haven't learned how to do that yet. When things go wrong with us, we typically do like we did today, give up a five-spot. To me, innings like the second-through-sixth innings today are what I call "Vapor Innings" where you don't even show up. You just go up there and (he imitates being at bat) neart-neart-neart, then you sit down. And you come back to the dugout and you just cuss yourself.

Me:
(laughing) Are your guys starting to have fewer and fewer "Vapor Innings" as they go along now?

Coach Watson:
Yeah. I think we are. It's all about people that don't beat themselves. Like last night (a tight, 2-1 loss), we got frustrated by a few calls, then we let it fester inside us. That's a maturing deal. And my kids hate when I use that word - maturing.

Me:
Well, it's such a grown up word, right?

Coach Watson:
Yeah, and they've got these trophy cases full of stuff, you know. They figure they know everything already.

Me:
Talk a bit about the Southland Conference. It seems like the last few years, you guys haven't been getting quite as many upset wins against the big money schools like you were known for in the past. Is the conference in a down cycle right now?

Coach Watson:
Well, I don't think the Southland is the upper class. I mean, when we've got to go play the Big 12 and the SEC, it's always at their stadiums. And truthfully, they're no better on the road than we are. That's the sad part. But yet, we've got to go play in their parks because the big dogs don't want to leave the porch.

Me:
Well, don't get me started about how mid-majors get the short stick in scheduling.

Coach Watson:
You know, before last week this conference was 105-and-105. We were something like 30-80 on the road and 80-and-30 at home. Something like that. The only teams that we can get to come to our place are the teams in the SWAC or the Centenarys or we also had Youngstown State come out of 2-feet of snow to play us. But we're not going to get Baylor to play at our park, for example.

Me:
So speaking of, how soon is that new stadium supposed to be ready?

Coach Watson:
We lack 1.2 million dollars to start building. We raised 2.3 million in 90 days. So I suspect in 90 more days we'll have the funds and be up and running.

Me:
Well that's good. At least you're not hitting me up for money or anything.

Coach Watson:
No not yet. But talk to me a little bit longer and I will.

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert