A day later than expected, Demons open season at Southern Miss

Lenni Kunert and the Demons open the 2021 season at Southern Miss on Saturday.
Lenni Kunert and the Demons open the 2021 season at Southern Miss on Saturday.(Chris Reich/NSU Photographic Services)
Published: Feb. 19, 2021 at 12:51 PM CST
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HATTIESBURG, Miss.(NSU Sports Information) – In many ways, the Northwestern State baseball team was as well-prepared as any to handle the myriad changes caused by the winter weather that has tormented northwest Louisiana the past week.

As the Demons prepare to open their 2021 season with a 5 p.m. Saturday matchup at Southern Miss, they do so after waiting 347 days to face different competition after having the start of the three-game series pushed back a day.

Originally a Friday-Sunday series, the matchup with the Golden Eagles is now a Saturday-Monday slate. First pitch of the twice-adjusted series is set for 5 p.m. Saturday. The final two games will start at 2 p.m. and 12 p.m., respectively.

“It’s funny, because baseball is such a routine-driven sport,” said head coach Bobby Barbier, who begins his fifth season at the helm of his alma mater. “You have things you do every day. You have pitchers on a schedule, but those routines get messed up more than anything. We’re equipped to handle it. We’re used to it.”

Then Demons were 12-4 and 2-1 in Southland Conference play when the novel coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic brought the 2020 season to a premature end.

Despite the sudden stop to the season, there were positives that came out of it. Every Demon essentially was granted a redshirt year when the NCAA awarded all spring sports student-athletes an additional year of eligibility.

“That’s one thing we don’t have – the ability to have guys play four games and get them back as freshmen like football does,” Barbier said. “You’re going to see teams that had really good freshmen classes really improve. Now you have talented kids who have had half a year of experience.

“It’s not just the games. It’s being here for seven or eight months, practicing every day. It’s so different making that step up from high school to Division I, and our guys have had that chance.”

The Demons also benefited from the extra year on the other end of the experience spectrum. Two players – utilityman Lenni Kunert and left-handed pitcher Reed Michel – are back for a sixth season of their college careers.

Three other seniors – right-handed pitcher Peyton Graham and second-team Preseason All-Southland Conference selections Tyler Smith (outfield) and catcher Marshall Skinner – lengthen the Demons’ veteran core.

“Getting those guys back, guys we weren’t expecting to have, is big,” Barbier said. “Every team has guys like that. Having guys like Marshall, Lenni, Tyler, PG and Reed will be big for us. We’ll lean on them early this season as some of these other guys get used to playing Division I baseball, particularly those pitchers who haven’t done it yet.”

While the Demons did not lose a larger number of players, they will have to replace Friday night starter and Pittsburgh Pirates fifth-round pick Logan Hofmann (4-0, 0.00) and closer Kyle Swanson (4 saves). Hofmann was a second-team All-American while Swanson earned third-team Academic All-American honors.

The third member of the Demons’ All-American trio of 2020 is back. Right-hander Johnathan Harmon will start Saturday’s season opener after posting a 3-0 mark in four starts to go along with a 2.16 ERA, earning Freshman All-American honors from Collegiate Baseball magazine.

Harmon will front a rotation that includes sophomore left-hander Cal Carver (1-1, 1.50) and sophomore right-hander Levi David (2-0, 2.57).

Carver made a couple of starts in his first season in a Demon uniform while David was an important bullpen arm a year ago as both earned valuable innings. However, Barbier cautioned experience is not always a predictor of future success.

“Experience is only good if you get better, and those guys have,” he said. “Those three guys are far ahead of where they were last year. Those guys have gotten better over time being here, and we’re going to see some fresh faces out of the bullpen. I’m excited to see when we put those experienced guys out there and to see what happens when the new guys get a chance.”

Northwestern State finished the shortened 2020 season with four top-33 rankings for its pitching staff. Similarly, Southern Miss will rely on its pitching staff early in the season.

The Golden Eagles produced three of the four preseason All-Conference USA pitchers, including right-hander Hunter Stanley, who will oppose Harmon in Saturday’s series opener. Left-handers Chandler Best (0-2, 11.12) and Drew Boyd (0-0, 8.00) will start games two and three, respectively.

“From everything I’ve seen, their pitching staff will be the strong point,” said Barbier, whose team faces Southern Miss in a season-opening series for the first time since 2010. “They have some talented, but younger, hitters. They have some good recruits in there, but they’re really proud of their staff. It will be as good a staff as we’ll see all year, which is a good test for us early.”

That challenge – and seeing someone in an opposing uniform for the first time in just shy of a year – has Barbier as excited as his players.

“I feel like a dad who gets to watch his son play T-ball for the first time,” he said. “I want to go watch him play, watch him compete and play loose. I want our guys to enjoy this game we haven’t had in a while. If we do that, we’ll be just fine.”

Probable Starters (2020 stats)

Saturday: Northwestern State RHP Johnathan Harmon (3-0, 2.16) at Southern Miss RHP Hunter Stanley (2-0, 1.42)

Sunday: LHP Cal Carver (1-1, 1.50) at Southern Miss LHP Chandler Best (0-2, 11.12)

Sunday: Northwestern State RHP Levi David (2-0, 2.57) at Southern Miss LHP Drew Boyd (0-0, 8.00)

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