West Monroe at Sterlington

No doubt about it, Sterlington catcher Braden Hough would be sporting University of New Orleans apparel this fall on UNO’s campus if 2020 was just like any other year.

But we all know 2020 is anything but normal. The COVID-19 pandemic not only ended Hough’s senior season with the Panthers unceremoniously, but it also cost Hough a roster spot on UNO’s baseball team. When the Division I Council stated college teams could bring back senior baseball players for next season, Hough knew his opportunity had faded.

“There were six incoming freshmen, myself included,” said Hough, who gave UNO his verbal pledge last December. “They pulled four scholarships (after the DI Council’s decision), and I was one of the guys. They called me on the phone and said, ‘Hey nothing personal, but we just don’t have enough room for you.’ I was the last guy they offered, so I knew it was coming. That’s why I didn’t take it that hard when they called me as I maybe would have otherwise.”

Though Hough has shouldered the disappointment well, the decision to withdraw a scholarship opportunity from a promising young baseball player just doesn’t sit well with Sterlington head coach Mark Sims. In fact, it’s made him contemplate whether or not the council made the right decision.

“There’s an entire state full of high school seniors that are getting the short end of it,” Sims said. “When the NCAA allowed the kids to come back an extra year, that put a lot of kids in a bad spot. It’s a messed up deal for everybody. Is the NCAA handling it the right way? I don’t know. You just hate it for the kids that put the time in.”

After he received word from UNO, Hough made the decision to hang up the cleats. Hough has no desire to play junior college ball and didn’t want to play Division II either, so he’s now planning on attending LSU as a student where he’ll study economics and hopefully enter law school down the line.

If Hough holds firm on that decision, he’ll be walking away from the game on top. After all, Hough was a vital member of a Sterlington Panther program that went 107-16 in three-plus seasons. On top of that, Sterlington’s slugger never averaged below a .356 batting average during his four-year career. Not bad for a player who worked his way into the lineup as a freshman.

“We had a senior catcher transfer that year, and I ended up winning a competition to start at both DH and catcher my freshman year,” Hough said.

The Panthers won two state championships in the last three years, and it was Hough that helped propel them to their most recent one. In a scoreless, extra-inning tilt against No. 4 Berwick in a semifinal clash, No. 1 Sterlington’s Reece Brooks reached second base with Hough coming to the plate. Hough was salivating at the opportunity to deliver for his team because a year ago he had a similar scenario against the same team.

“Exact same game against the same team. We were down by two runs and a base hit would’ve tied the game,” Hough said. “But I failed.”

As Hough approached the plate with a runner in scoring position, Sims said he’d never forget the look in his eye.

“It was the determination on his face,” Sims said. “He looked at me like, ‘I got it.’ I just hadn’t seen that long in a long time. He stepped up there and got the hit.”

Hough sent Brooks home with a walk-off single and punched the Panthers’ ticket to the Class 3A State Championship Game, which the Panthers won, 4-2.

Since the LHSAA baseball playoffs split in 2017, four teams had won two state championships and would vie for a third in the 2020 season. Sterlington was one of those four teams.

Hough was hitting .407 in the 10 games played this season before COVID-19 brought the season to a screeching halt. He’s still trying to get over the missed opportunity to finish his career on top yet again.

“It was one of the most painful things I had to go through as a player,” Hough said. “And it wasn’t just because my high school season was cut short, but it was because it was cut short with that team. Each season was different, and I really liked our team.”

Hough started when he was a freshman, became a vocal leader when he was just a sophomore behind home plate and maintained his status as one of the leading sluggers on multiple Panthers’ clubs that he felt were as good as any team in the state. He also caught fpr Spencer Davis, Adam Tubbs and Trey Rugg, who are arguably the three most successful pitchers in school history. Rugg surpassed Davis’ win total in 2018 and now holds the school record with 40 victories. Hough caught for them, while also serving as a spark plug in the lineup.

“I would never say I was the best player on any of our teams because we had so many great players, but I feel like my job was to help motivate the rest of the lineup,” Hough said.

Considering the win percentage Hough and his fellow seniors end their careers with, it’s safe to say — job well done.

Award-winning sports writer for columns and features since joining the field in 2013. As the first-ever featured columnist of the month at Bleacher Report, Martin cut his teeth with online media before joining the newspaper business in 2014.

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