History has a way of repeating itself.
So I suppose five teams from the parish heading down to the state tournament shouldn’t surprise any of us, especially if you’ve paid attention to the caliber of baseball that’s been played in this area for several years now.
Ouachita Parish boasts more state tournament teams than any other parish in the state with five. Vernon Parish and Calcasieu Parish are tied for the second most with four each.
How anyone could sleep on high school baseball in Northeast Louisiana at this point is beyond me, especially after the same exact five teams (West Monroe, Neville, Sterlington, Ouachita Christian and Claiborne Christian) reserved their spot in Sulphur again this year. The last time those exact five teams made the state tournament was in 2017, and on any other given year, a team like West Ouachita can also make the trip.
Speaking of the Chiefs, I’m reminded of an old familiar conversation I’ve had with head coach Mitch Thomas over the years. His Chiefs, and Paul Guerriero’s Neville Tigers infamously get off to rocky starts and progress into formidable teams by the year’s end. It happens like clockwork.
In one of the many interviews we’ve had discussing this topic, I asked Thomas point blank, “No really, how do you do it? What’s the secret to this?” I’d love to tell you Thomas laid out this grand scheme that he and others like Guerriero have devised through the years, but honestly, the answer was pretty simple. It’s all about scheduling.
For one reason or another, some tend to sleep on this area when it comes to baseball. They talk about Baton Rouge or Lafayette or New Orleans, and those areas are all deserving of praise.
But this parish has repeatedly produced state champions and state contenders across the board.
What makes this area so strong is their eagerness to play good teams. Whether it’s a tournament, a district series or just a regular two- or even three-game series that are scheduled during the regular season, the smaller schools aren’t afraid to lock horns with the bigger ones from this area. And in some cases, they walk away with the victory, like when Ouachita Christian blanked West Monroe, 5-0, earlier this year. And give credit to the bigger schools too. Some schools might only see the downside of taking a potential loss against a smaller school. These coaches up here see the bigger picture.
“We beat up on each other,” Thomas said candidly.
Because of the schedule they play, teams like the Rebels earn No. 2 overall with a 21-7 regular season record. There were better records than that in 5A. But then again, those teams haven’t played the likes of Sterlington, OCS, Byrd, Live Oak, Tioga, Walker, Central and Barbe.
The list goes on and on. And that’s why we see so many of these teams take their lumps early on before evolving into a championship-caliber club by the end of the season.
Expand it beyond the parish, and Northeast Louisiana is even more impressive. In fact, Class 5A, Class 4A, Class 3A, Class 2A (Mangham), Class 1A (Oak Grove), Class B (Choudrant), Class C (Downsville), Division IV and Division V will certainly give Sulphur a Northeast Louisiana flavor.
The representation in the state tournament back up any claims these coaches make about the quality of baseball in our own backyard. It’s as good as any in the state. But this week, these baseball teams have a chance to bring something back that’s, well, been lacking in the major sports. We’ve gone through a football, basketball and softball postseason with just one team (OCS girls) claiming a state title in the parish.
So this area is sort of collectively looking at baseball to carry that banner proudly down to Sulphur and return with some hardware that’s been lacking.
The way these teams have played this year I feel pretty confident NELA will add a few trophies to the case this weekend.