The Southland Conference consists of 10 schools nestled in Louisiana and Texas, outposts in between better-known programs from the Big 12 and Southeastern conferences. It has served as a proving ground for coaches who have ascended to top jobs at top programs. Smoke Laval, Dave Van Horn and Jim Wells all coached there in the 1990s before later leading Louisiana State, Nebraska and Arkansas, and Alabama to Omaha.
The Southland has proved just as fertile in spitting out professional players, many of them entering college with little acclaim before leaving as top draft picks. Louisiana-Monroe's Ben Sheets (1999), Texas State's Blake Williams (2000) and UT San Antonio's Mark Schramek (2002) each became first-round selections after three years in the league. McNeese State's Ben Broussard (1999) and UT-Arlington's Hunter Pence (2004) developed into second-rounders.
"There's always some guy popping out of there, some late developers that didn't get in the draft [out of high school] or to LSU or somewhere like that," an American League scout said.
Right-handers Jacob Marceaux of McNeese State and Matt Green of Louisiana-Monroe should join that group this season. Both Louisiana natives showcased their arm strength in high school but had yet to mature as pitchers. Three seasons in the Southland and the help of a former major-leaguer have both in position to get selected in the draft's first five rounds. They meet Friday night as Monroe visits McNeese State.
"Both of us throw hard with good breaking stuff," Marceaux said. "I'm looking forward to competing against him this year, and who knows when else in the future."
Marceaux was home-schooled in Jennings, La., until his senior year, when he enrolled at Northside Christian High. Just two scouts even thought about signing the 6-foot-2 right-hander then. But he could end up a supplemental first-rounder or second-rounder this year after going 3-5 with a 3.31 ERA and a 75-18 strikeout-walk ratio in 71 innings. Those numbers stand out more when you consider that the rest of McNeese State's staff carries a 14-23 record with a 6.51 ERA.
Coach Chad Clement regrets that his team hasn't been able to support its ace for more wins. He also acknowledges cutting into Marceaux's strikeout totals.
"I'm trying to keep his pitch count down and keep him in the game," said Clement, who urges Marceaux to induce contact in the first three pitches of an at-bat when possible.
"We're struggling in the bullpen, so the best thing we can do is keep him out there until the ninth."
Marceaux spent time in that bullpen as a freshman and sophomore. His lively sinking fastball has reached the low- to mid-90s throughout his college career, but he barely threw a breaking ball his first two years in school, mostly working as a fastball-changeup pitcher. That changed this summer when Marceaux pitched for former Tigers closer Mike Henneman in the Texas Collegiate League. There, he developed a spike curveball with a traditional downward power break at 76-78 mph and an 84- to 87-mph slider that he calls a cutter. He returned to school a completely different pitcher, Clement said.
"I added a couple more bullets to my gun," Marceaux said. "Before hitters were guessing right 50 percent of the time, now they just have a 25 percent chance of guessing what's coming in there."
"I think he's one of the fastest guys to the big leagues in this class," the scout said. "His stuff is that good. I'd project him as a reliever, and in two-inning spurts, his velocity can go up to 96 with pitchability and a hard slider. Everything is above-average."
Marceaux's stuff, style and size draw comparisons to Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt, a pitcher Marceaux has added to his list of favorite pitchers to watch, along with Roger Clemens.
Pick either of those names, and that's how Marceaux pitched Feb. 15 at Tulane. On three days' rest, he held the Green Wave scoreless on four hits for seven innings, taking a no-decision when the home team rallied for three runs against the McNeese bullpen.
"The [Tulane] fans clapped for me when I came out of the game," Marceaux said. "I've never had that happen to me before on the road. After that game, I knew this was going to be a special year."
Marceaux hit a slight snag March 15 when he pulled an intercostal muscle between his ribs while pitching on a cold night at Wichita State. The pain stretched across his left side to his back, and he missed two starts before returning.
The injury gave Marceaux a scare and put the fragility of his health and baseball career in perspective, but it was nothing like what Green experienced as a freshman at Louisiana-Monroe in 2002. He got hit in the forehead with a batted ball while throwing a changeup during live batting practice. He ended up missing the entire season and found it difficult to return to the mound at first, especially throwing a changeup.
"It was hard sitting out for a whole year," Green said. "The first time I went back out there after being hit, a guy hits a ball right between my legs. It was scary, but now I'm fine. I just hope it never happens again."
Now a redshirt junior, 6-foot-5 Green said things couldn't have worked out much better. The Monroe native stayed close to home for the opportunity to pitch right away, and also because his 6-foot-8 father, Roger, played basketball there when the school was known as Northeast Louisiana. The younger Green's low-to-mid-90s velocity had teams scouting him as an eligible sophomore a year ago, but his high signing price left him undrafted, and he eschewed free-agent offers after ranking as the Jayhawk League's top prospect last summer.
Green should become a third- to fifth-round pick this June after an 8-1, 1.98 season. Monroe has won all but one conference game in which he has pitched and lost all but one of the others.
"Matty's our Ben Sheets of this year," said Monroe coach Brad Holland, who served as an assistant at the school under Laval during Sheets' tenure.
Green actually has benefited more from another former Monroe star, local product Chuck Finley, who has returned to his alma mater to serve as the volunteer assistant. Finley and pitching coach Jeff Schexnaider have helped Green mature as a pitcher and emerge from his high school mind-set of "just throwing the ball up there, not knowing what I was doing."
The raw power of a fastball that tops out at 95 mph and an 81- to 83-mph slider weren't enough during his first two years because he insisted on being too fine and not believing in his stuff. That resulted in a combined 6-6 record with a 5.25 ERA and a 116-75 strikeout-walk ratio in 120 innings. He has posted a 107-17 ratio in 77 innings this season and ranks 10th nationally in strikeouts per nine innings.
"The potential has been there," Holland said. "He was just not in the [strike] zone enough. You've got to be willing to fail. If it's stealing bases, you're going to get thrown out at second. Pitching, if you're not in the zone, guys aren't going to swing. You can't be afraid to get hit, not with his stuff.
"Now he's throwing more strikes early in the count, and guys chase out of the zone. He's given himself room for error. How many curveballs did Ben Sheets bounce when he struck out 18 Braves?"
In a few years, Holland could be detailing similar stories about the pro careers of Marceaux and Green. The hard-throwing duo can serve as the example to the next crop, and Clement feels pretty certain there will be a next crop.
"Even with Jake and Matt Green [likely] leaving after this year," Clement said, "this conference always produces such great players."
Around The Nation
• This marks the final weekend of regular-season play in the Ivy League, where winners of the Gehrig and Rolfe divisions meet next weekend in a best-of-three championship series. Cornell (9-7) and Princeton (8-8) lead the Gehrig, and conveniently face each other in home-and-home doubleheaders Saturday and Sunday. Harvard (12-4) plays four against Dartmouth as it tries to maintain its one-game lead in the Rolfe over Brown (11-5), which faces Yale. At 9-7, Yale could win if it sweeps all four games and Dartmouth sweeps Harvard. The team with the best overall record hosts the championship series, and that should be a Rolfe club.
• The Southwestern Athletic Conference plays its tournament next weekend in Houston, but all six spots already have been secured for the event. The final weekend of league play will only serve to establish seeding. At 18-6, Mississippi Valley State has clinched the top seed. Eastern Division cohorts Alcorn State and Jackson State are both 13-8, while Southern and Texas Southern are both 15-6 in the Western Division. Prairie View A&M (12-9) also has qualified for the tournament.
Alcorn State's 5-foot-8 sophomore second baseman, Corey Wimberly, has become something of a new version of Rickie Weeks, who set the NCAA career record for batting average while playing in the SWAC for Southern. Wimberly leads the nation with a .470 batting average, ranks second in steals per game (he has 39 in 43 attempts), sixth in runs per game (47) and is the fifth-most difficult player to strike out with five K's in 115 at-bats. He even has his own Web site, www.coreywimberly.com.
• Houston visits Texas Christian this weekend in a series with NCAA Tournament implications. The Horned Frogs can boost their RPI and strengthen their grip on third place in Conference USA with a series win. That scenario makes TCU a near lock for the tournament. Houston just needs wins. The Cougars again have played a rigorous schedule but sit below .500 overall at 18-22. Houston missed last year's postseason despite a top 50 RPI because its record was just 30-29.
• Maybe the Crazy Eight Curse is a self-fulfilling prophecy or simply the law of averages, but it worked again last week when Baylor lost three times, including a series against Nebraska. The curse has afflicted Baylor twice this season, maybe because media-relations man Larry Little was the first to point out the phenomenon. There was discussion in the Haymarket Park press box that the Huskers' win could vault them to No. 8 this week, and indeed it did. Nebraska visits Oklahoma, where it will try to become just the second team ranked No. 8 this year to avoid at least a two-loss week. It won't be easy for the Huskers, because even though the Sooners are 22-18 overall, they're 17-3 at home this season. It's a Thursday-Saturday series as both schools prepare for upcoming final exams.
• If the Southeastern Conference tournament started today, there would be several forfeits because only No. 13 Alabama and visiting Georgia are anywhere near the event site of Hoover, Ala., this weekend. But if someone wanted to see the actual field as of today, last year's regular-season co-champions Arkansas and Georgia would have to buy tickets as the 10th and 11th teams in an eight-team field. Nine teams have league records between 11-7 and 8-10, meaning things could change in an instant. And that makes the final three weeks very important for the 11 clubs that could make legitimate NCAA Tournament claims. There probably won't be more than nine spots for the league.
In the weekend's most intriguing matchup, No. 18 Tennessee visits No. 4 Florida in a meeting of the top teams in the Eastern Division. No. 16 Louisiana State takes a five-game SEC win streak to face No. 25 Vanderbilt, which has defeated South Carolina and Tennessee in consecutive series. Mississippi State (9-8) visits Mississippi (9-9) in a series that could push the loser out of the conference tournament.
• On a related note, Tennessee catcher J.P. Arencibia hit two home runs in a doubleheader sweep against Tennessee Temple to tie the school's freshman record of 11 homers. He needs one more to break a tie with Todd Helton, who hit 11 in 1993.
• Freshman right-hander Anthony Encinas (3-2, 3.63) makes his first weekend start for No. 22 Southern California against No. 9 Arizona in a game televised on ESPN. Encinas moves in because junior right-hander Brett Bannister (4-2, 4.91) will miss the series with elbow inflammation. He's listed as week-to-week the rest of the way. Remember, the Trojans already had been playing without two starting position players since late March. Freshman first baseman Lucas Duda broke his left wrist March 25 against Arizona State but could return sometime in the next three weeks. Sophomore outfielder Danny Perales injured his back before that ASU series and won't play again this year.
• Welcome to Atlantic Coast Conference baseball, Andrew Brackman. North Carolina State will start the 6-foot-10 freshman right-hander Friday night at home against ace North Carolina left-hander Andrew Miller. It's not often the 6-foot-6 sophomore faces an opposing pitcher taller than he is, but how many college basketball centers also hit 95 mph off the mound? "He's an amazing athlete," Wolfpack closer Joey Devine said.
• Georgia Tech doesn't list junior right-hander Jason Neighborgall among its probable starters for this weekend's series at Clemson. Lee Hyde and Blake Wood will start the first two games, and the No. 7 Yellow Jackets will decide the final starter Sunday. Neighborgall seemed to put his control problems behind him early in the season but has struggled in ACC play, going 3-2 with a 7.67 ERA (plus 39 strikeouts and 35 walks) in 27 innings.
• Illinois junior Chris Robinson's defensive skills help him rank as one of the best catchers available in the June draft, but his bat has started coming to life lately after a slow start this year. He tallied four hits (two homers), four runs and seven RBI Tuesday in an 18-11 win against Eastern Illinois. "The first one, I didn't think I got enough of it, but the second one I knew was gone because of the way the wind was blowing," said Robinson, who's batting .345-5-25 and has thrown out 11 of 31 base stealers, including one Tuesday. The Illini, tied with Minnesota for first place in the Big Ten at 12-4, visit Penn State for a four-game conference series.
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