MOBILE, Alabama – The setup may be a little different, but the feeling is the same.
The Northwestern State baseball team travels to South Alabama for this weekend’s Jaguar Classic, marking the first time since 2009 the Demons will play a season-opening tournament.
“It’s always good to play somebody else,” said head coach Bobby Barbier, who begins his seventh season at the helm of his alma mater. “We’ve been playing each other since August, and it’s important to understand the value we get in that. These are three really good teams. South Al always has a good program, and UAB and Eastern Kentucky have done a really good job, and you have former Demon Chris Prothro coaching at Eastern Kentucky.”
The Demons open tournament play at 6:30 p.m. Friday, facing tournament host South Alabama. They will play at 11 a.m. the final two days of the event, squaring off with UAB on Saturday before concluding the weekend against EKU.
While the Demons have not faced UAB nor EKU since at least 1990, they are more familiar with South Alabama, which came to Natchitoches in 2021 and swept a three-game series. NSU held late leads in the first two games of that series but were unable to close out a win.
The Demons will send left-hander Cal Carver (4-5, 4.71 in 2022), a second-team preseason All-Southland Conference selection, to the mound against Jaguar right-hander Jeremy Lee (1-0, 1.38), who started the series opener in Natchitoches two seasons ago.
Lee will face an NSU lineup that returns mostly intact, losing just center fielder Larson Fontenot and shortstop Cam Sibley from its 2022 lineup. Anchoring the lineup are first-team All-Southland Conference catcher Bo Willis (11 HR, 45 RBIs), third-team All-Southland Conference second baseman Daunte Stuart (4 HRs, 31 RBIs) and senior outfielder Jeffrey Elkins (13 HRs, 38, RBIs), whose 24 career home runs are tied for eighth in school history.
“We’ll face a dynamite arm on Friday,” Barbier said. “We’ve faced some pretty good arms in scrimmages. The top five or six in our lineup will be very familiar. We’ll have some young guys and some new guys in there, but you want to lean on those older guys early to give mature, experienced at-bats. How are we going to react? Will we be mature about our at-bats – good, bad or indifferent? Can we teach those new guys and young guys to have those at-bats?”
Similarly, the Demons have a pair of veterans anchoring the rotation in Carver and junior right-hander Drayton Brown (5-6, 4.43), who will start Sunday’s series finale against EKU.
Sandwiched between them is junior right-hander Alex Makarewich, who has appeared in 31 games out of the bullpen in his NSU career. Makarewich is set to start Saturday’s middle game of the weekend against UAB.
“You like experience, and the word that is synonymous with that from a pitching standpoint is trust,” Barbier said. “We trust those guys. Those three guys have logged some pretty good innings. We have some guys in the bullpen who have done the same. Having that comfort level as a staff and as a team does wonders for you.”
Barbier has put a lot of trust in his staff – associate head coach Chris Bertrand, assistant coaches Spencer Goodwin and Dan Hlad, director of player development Trevor Wren and director of baseball operations Thomas Taylor – all of whom have spent at least a year with Barbier.
Bertrand has been with Barbier since the latter was promoted to head coach in 2017. Goodwin played for Barbier that season and has been on staff since. Hlad pitched two seasons for the Demons and returned in 2021 as an assistant.
Because of that familiarity with one another, it made a rather unique start to the NSU season easier to take. The Demons will play seven opponents in their first seven games, not facing a repeat opponent until squaring off with Stephen F. Austin on Feb. 26 in Sugar Land, Texas, and Feb. 28 in Natchitoches.
“I made it really hard on the staff,” Barbier said with a smile. “It’s more difficult on the scouting side. We have so much information out there. It’s not like when I played, and you printed off a scouting report and played. We have a really good staff that has been poring over that information for who knows how long.”
Weekend Probables (2022 stats)
Friday: Northwestern State LHP Cal Caver (4-5, 4.71) at South Alabama RHP Jeremy Lee (1-0, 1.38)
Saturday: Northwestern State RHP Alex Makarewich (0-0, 4.57) vs. UAB LHP Carson Myers (2-3, 6.99)
Sunday: Northwestern State RHP Drayton Brown (5-6, 4.43) vs. EKU RHP Rian Yates (0-2, 3.80)
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