HAMMOND — Ruth Kenelly, 85, has watched her fair share of Southeastern Louisiana baseball over the years.
So perhaps the widow of longtime Lions coach Pat Kenelly described it best when asked how it felt to see the words “Southeastern Louisiana” pop up on the television screen Monday as the NCAA baseball tournament pairings were announced.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” she said.
Kenelly was one of about 75 people, including current and former players, who gathered in the Victory Club at Strawberry Stadium to find out whom the Lions would face when NCAA regional play begins Friday.
It’s the first time in 20 years that Southeastern (37-23) will play in a regional. The Lions earned an automatic berth by winning the Southland Conference tournament title Saturday.
“This is a dream come true,” right fielder Andrew Godbold said. “Everyone’s dream is to get to compete for a chance to go to the College World Series, and we finally got that opportunity.”
While the Lions’ wait for a postseason trip has been long, their trip this weekend won’t be. They will make the 45-mile trek west on Interstate 12 to face LSU (44-14-1) at 2 p.m. Friday.
LSU is the No. 1 seed in the four-team regional that also includes No. 2 seed Houston (44-15) and No. 3 Bryant (42-14).
Being sent to Baton Rouge wasn’t much of a surprise. It was assumed that the Lions would end up in a regional hosted by LSU or Louisiana-Lafayette.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way,” first-year Lions coach Matt Riser said. “It’s a chance for us to stay close to home, and our fans can travel over and watch us. I like the matchup.”
It’ll be the teams’ second meeting of the season. LSU visited Hammond on Feb. 19 and won 7-3.
“It’s a familiar opponent,” Riser said. “We played them earlier at our place and had a tight game early. A lot has changed since then. We’ve come a long way, and they have come a long way. They are one of the hottest teams in the country. But again, I like it.”
LSU enters the game fresh off winning the Southeastern Conference tournament title Sunday against Florida. The Tigers are the No. 8 national seed, meaning they will host a super regional if they win their regional.
“It’s LSU, but we’re looking at it like it’s just another opponent,” pitcher Tate Scioneaux said. “We just have to look at them like we look at everybody else.”
Scioneaux, a sophomore, threw 5.1 scoreless innings in relief Saturday in the Southland championship game, earning MVP honors and getting the Lions to the NCAA postseason for the first time since right around when he was born.
It likely will be ace Andro Cutura, though, who will start Friday.
“We’ll just have to see where he’s at and how he feels, but more than likely it will be Andro,” Riser said.
Cutura, a finalist for the Gregg Olson Award, given to college baseball’s breakout player of the year, is 10-2. The 6-foot, right-handed junior from Pearl River has a 1.72 ERA with 95 strikeouts (19 walks) in 99.2 innings.
LSU is expected to counter with righty Aaron Nola or lefty Jared Poché, Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said.
“It’s going to be a great battle,” Godbold said.
Godbold said he and his teammates are prepared for what should be a rowdy, mostly all-purple- and gold-clad LSU crowd. The Lions have fared well in enemy territory, beating tournament host Central Arkansas in the championship game over the weekend. But Alex Box Stadium is an entirely different animal.
“It’s going to be hostile, and we know that,” Godbold said. “We like that. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Southeastern’s lone postseason victory came in 1992, when it beat Hawaii in the Tucson regional in the Lions’ first postseason trip since moving to Division I in 1981. They lost their next two games, to eventual champion Pepperdine and Hawaii.
They went two-and-out in 1994, their other regional appearance. That regional, like this year, was in Baton Rouge; the Lions lost to the Tigers 10-6 in the first game before being eliminated by UNC-Greensboro.
Gary Sandifer, at 61 a longtime fan, looks forward to another opportunity.
“I have been going to games all of my adult life, and I remember back when I was sitting in the cheap seats,” he said. “So to see this day come, there are just no words.”
Note: Ticket books for the Baton Rouge regional will be available for Southeastern season-ticket holders beginning at 8 a.m. Tuesday through the Southeastern athletics ticket office. The books, containing a ticket for each game, will cost $50. Season-ticket holders have until noon Wednesday to purchase books; any remaining books will be made available to the public following that deadline. Contact (985) 549-5466 for more information.