Jacob Hammond, Jack Merrifield help LSU-Eunice baseball reach junior college World Series

Bobby Ardoin
Special to the Daily World
Jake Hammond of LSU-Eunice throws a pitch against East Central in the Region 23 championship game on on May 22, 2021. The Bengals advanced to the Division II National Junior College Athletic Association World Series.

Jacob Hammond and Jack Merrifield arrived at LSU-Eunice baseball program in 2019 with the assumption that they had already acquired enough of the essentials to expertly play the game.

They kept that idea with them until each of the high school standouts was introduced as freshmen to Bengals coach Jeff Willis along with the requisites that are expected to be attained in his program.

The strident requirements for LSUE players eventually became an acceptable way of life for both Hammond and Merrifield who admit they soon realized the skills they possessed previously were insufficient in a program where the excellence bar is annually set exceedingly high.

Merrifield and Hammond have developed into two of the primary reasons  why the Bengals are seeking a seventh Division II National Junior College Athletic Association national championship.

LSUE (46-6) began the season ranked No. 1 in nearly every NJCCA poll and the Bengals are the top seed in the 10-team World Series held at David Allen Memorial Stadium in Enid, Oklahoma.

For Merrifield a .424 career hitter at LSUE, the at-plate adjustment seemed initially to be substantial.

“In high school (at Dutchtown in Gonzales), I would get up there and swing at just about anything. Looking back, I didn’t really have much of an approach and I really didn’t understand the process of what is needed to hit the ball,” said Merrifield, who plays second base.

Like so many other hitters attempting to transition from high school to college offense, Merrifield said he began to take a more studious approach, working with the elements of stance and swing, examining pitchers, considering the count to determine what pitch might be next and watching for nuances that accompany each trip to the plate.

Merrifield, who recently signed with LSU, said he didn’t have any definite Division I offers when he was considering his future, so LSUE was the viable option.

“I came here mainly because of the tradition," said Merrifield, who is hitting .413 with six homers and a team-leading 61 RBIs. "This program has been to the World Series 10 times (under Willis) and won it six. I heard from other players how things are run (at LSUE). Certain things are expected daily and there is a high level of accountability for the players here.

“It’s tough and the program may not be for everyone. Sometimes the practices are long and things can get more intense than at other colleges.” 

Hammond, who played at Ouachita High in Monroe, said he could have probably signed with Nicholls State, but he later thought that playing for Willis in Eunice was the better choice.

“Like most of the guys who are pitchers when they get to college, we were all starters at our high schools," said Hammond. "Then when you get here at this level however, you are placed into specified roles.

“I guess the biggest thing I learned was how to handle the moment when you are out there on the mound. How do you process what just happened with the previous hitter and how are you going to adjust to that next guy who is coming to the plate.”

Hammond learned as early as 2019 that perhaps his best assignment is not as a starter, but in late relief.

“I came here as a starter and now I am a closer. It’s a spot that I have also come to relish," Hammond said. "I realized that the first time I came in (as the closer) I was ready for that. There’s no other dose of adrenalin like it. You have to have that linebacker-type of mentality.”

Hammond, who has already signed with Louisiana-Lafayette, hasn’t lost a game at LSUE. This year he is 4-0 with a 0.81 earned run average and 40 strikeouts and 12 walks in 38 innings. Batters are hitting .134 against him.

Merrifield and Hammond are also part of a core group of three-year players who chose the option of participating for another year at LSUE in order to help the program win another title.

In 2020 after it became evident that LSUE, then 21-0 and ranked No. 1 in the NJCCA poll, would end the season because of COVID-19, Hammond recalled a team meeting where the players voted on whether they wanted to remain at the two-year school or play at other schools.

Several chose to leave LSUE, Hammond said, but the majority of sophomore players decided to remain another year in order to have a chance at a title.

“This is a special place and we felt at the time that we hadn’t accomplished all that we wanted to, both on and off the field. We decided no matter what happened, we were going to stay and play another season,” said Hammond, a pre-law major.

Merrifield read the message from the players’ ballot at the same meeting in a similar way.

“It was upsetting that we couldn’t finish (2020). We knew that some of the players weren’t going to be coming back, but most of us felt that our careers here weren’t finished and we still wanted to accomplish what we started,” Merrifield said.