As LSU baseball enters a new era, 3 veterans lead the way for new coach Jay Johnson

Francisco Rosa
Lafayette Daily Advertiser

First-year LSU baseball coach Jay Johnson won't have to rebuild or reload in 2022 following the MLB Draft.

The Tigers only lost two players from a team that made it to the super regional round of the NCAA Tournament, though the program did lose several top signees to the draft.

Several draft-eligible veterans, such as pitchers Devin Fontenot, Ma'Khail Hilliard and outfielder Gavin Dugas, chose to return to Baton Rogue for one final season to improve their draft stocks. 

"I knew that if I was going to go in the draft, I was looking to go in the top five rounds," Fontenot said. " But at the same time I think I have things I need to do at LSU still to get me in that situation. So that's why I ultimately needed to come back so I can, you know, help LSU and help myself in the future."

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Dugas, Fontenot and Hilliard each made a big impact during Paul Mainieri's final year in charge of the program.

Fontenot became LSU's closer and went 4-2 with a 3.86 ERA.

Dugas, who went undrafted, hit .295 and led the Tigers with 19 homers to go along with 66 RBIs, ranking near the top of the SEC in both categories. He believes he can be just as good under Johnson, who is known for helping batters improve at the plate.

"I know that he's bringing a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge with him and I just want to soak up everything that he has up," Dugas said. "I understand that he's a guru when it comes to hitting and to be honest, I love everything about that.

"I'm really excited to go to battle for him."

Arizona coach Jay Johnson speaks during a coaches' news conference at TD Ameritrade Park in Omaha, Neb., Friday, June 17, 2016, ahead of the NCAA men's baseball College World Series. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)

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Hillard was one of the team's best starters to close out the season, allowing just 13 runs over eight starts to cover the last month of the regular season and into the postseason. He went 6-0 with a 4.31 ERA.

After his father died in a tubing accident June 19, Hilliard's decision to return to LSU was difficult.

"My mindset definitely changed a lot," Hillard said. "(My dad) really wanted me to stay at LSU another year to graduate and then move on and try too get my masters, so that's what I plan on doing. And I've set my goals very high even though I didn't go to the draft, I've set my goals really high. So I plan to come back and fulfill them."

LSU pitcher Ma'Khail Hilliard (52) throws during an NCAA baseball game against Nicholls on Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Baton Rouge, La.

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Johnson believes the return of the three veterans will help bring the type of stability, production and leadership that'll serve as the foundation for his first team at LSU. 

"I spent a lot of time with these guys over the last two weeks," Johnson said. "I mean it honestly has been priority number one to have that come to fruition and getting to know them as people. I think there's some strong leadership qualities in all of them."

LSU last reached the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, in 2017. 

"I think it's going to be the most special group I've been a part of and I've been a part of some good ones," Fontenot said. "But with this new staff and the new things that we're going to try to tackle, it's going to be something that all of us has not experienced, I don't think, and I think everyone's just going to be that much more excited for the fall, and everyday we get to the field everybody's gonna be there and want to put in the work a lot more than they already did.

"I think that's going to do a lot of good things and show what we can do during the season."