NATCHITOCHES – Four years ago, five men were part of a group that set out to change the culture of Northwestern State baseball.
As the 2016 season hits the stretch run, senior Cort Brinson, redshirt juniors Nick Heath and Regan Kaufman, head coach Lane Burroughs and assistant coach G.T. McCullough have done – for the most part – what they set out to accomplish.
“That’s what I came here to do,” said Brinson, the 2015 Southland Conference Hitter of the Year and Student-Athlete of the Year. “We came in and had a tough year our freshman year. It was a building year, and we’ve built every year since. We play the game the way it’s supposed to be played now. We have a culture, and we brought the tradition back to NSU.”
As the head coach, Burroughs has the task of setting the culture in the clubhouse and throughout the program for a team that enters this weekend’s series with Arkansas State (20-23) on a six-game winning streak and at 25-18 overall.
With each passing year, Burroughs began to lean more and more on the trio of Brinson, Heath and Kaufman – the three remaining members of Burroughs’ first recruiting class as the Demons skipper.
“It’s one of the fun things about coaching – you get these young men in, and they’re kind of shy,” Burroughs said. “They’re tiptoeing and trying to navigate their way around the program, around people and around school. You see them four years later, and they’re leaders. They’re men, and they’re so much different than when they walked in.
“They all mean so much to me. I’ve learned from them. I lean on those guys. I ask them questions about our program and, ‘Do we need to do this, or do we need to do that?’ I do it in confidence all the time. They want us to be great. They want to win here, and it’s fun to have those guys who have been through it.”
In describing the journey that has taken the Demons from a 16-win season to a second-place Southland Conference last season, Heath spouted off adjectives almost as quickly as he races to stolen bases or to track down fly balls in the outfield gaps.
“It’s been hectic,” Heath said. “It’s been fun, confusing, scary, a whole bunch of different things. It’s refreshing now to look back on and see everything we’ve been through – me, Cort, Regan, Coach B, Coach McCullough. It’s been kind of wild. We’ve grown from it as people, as players and as coaches. It’s been awesome. It’s been fun.”
Regardless of what transpires in the final three weeks of the regular season and potentially the Southland Conference Tournament, the trio of Brinson, Heath and Kaufman have left their marks on the program.
Brinson’s name dots the record books, sitting the regular-season top 10 in both hit by pitches and hits. He owns career top-10 marks in hit by pitches – in which he shares the school record with assistant coach Bobby Barbier – games played, at-bats, hits, RBIs, doubles and total bases.
Heath’s 30 stolen bases currently rank third in school single-season history and his 70 career steals are third in NSU lore.
Kaufman’s impact goes past statistics.
A Natchitoches native, Kaufman played his high school baseball at St. Mary’s and longed to be a Demon.
“My dad went to school here, and my mom went to school here,” Kaufman said. “(My goal) was always to be a Northwestern State Demon. It was never to be an LSU Tiger or play at any other program. It’s always to be an NSU Demon.”
When Burroughs arrived on campus, he quickly saw the depth of Kaufman’s devotion to being a Demon.
“I remember his mom and dad coming in and sitting on the couch in my office,” Burroughs said. “He just wanted a chance. I think the prior staff told him he could walk on, and they wanted to make sure I was on board. He wants Northwestern State to be great. He wants to be a great Northwestern State player. He’s not worried about pro ball or any of that stuff. He takes care of his stuff on and off the field. He’s a joy to be around.”
Kaufman missed the 2015 season after tearing his ACL in the spring.
While Kaufman rehabbed, he managed to make several trips with his teammates, including a 14-plus-hour round trip to Corpus Christi late in the season.
The trips were cathartic for Kaufman.
“When I got hurt, it felt like the end of the world,” said Kaufman, who has moved back into the starting lineup at third base for the past eight games. “Just being able to stay with the guys on road trips meant everything. I felt like I was missing a big part of me if I wasn’t on the trips with them.”
Even when he couldn’t be with the team in person, he reached out via text message to his brothers in arms.
“When he wasn’t playing, you could see it in his face that when we had games or we were practicing, he wanted to be out there with us,” Heath said. “He picked up the team. He wasn’t able to put on the jersey or to travel with us all the time. We’d get a text from him saying, ‘Go kick somebody’s butt this weekend. I’m praying for you guys. I’m rooting for you guys.’”
At the team’s preseason banquet, Burroughs called the trio “the original B-Stro Boys,” a nod to Kaufman’s, Brinson’s and Heath’s standing from Burroughs’ first recruiting class.
Their bond has grown closer with each of the close to 200 games in which they have shared the field at Brown-Stroud Field or a number of road venues.
It has fueled a mutual admiration society of sorts.
“I come out here and see these guys and say, ‘We’ve been doing this together for four years,’” Heath said. “I wouldn’t want to play alongside anybody else.
“It’s been amazing. To see Cort have the year he had last year pushed me to be a better player, to bring everything I had to the field and to leave it out there. Watching how he plays is crazy. I haven’t played with anyone who is as passionate about the game as he is.”
Brinson, who describes his most effective playing style as “pissed off,” echoed the sentiments back to the Demons center fielder.
“Nick is the fastest guy I’ve played with,” Brinson said. “I’m never going to see anyone else like him.”
Together, the pair whose names will fill up the Demons record books upon the completion of their careers expressed a shared affinity for Kaufman, whose battle to overcome injuries culminated with a game-winning, 10th-inning single in an 8-7 victory at McNeese State on April 3.
Kaufman delivered a pinch-hit RBI single off McNeese closer Collin Kober to lift the Demons to an emotional series victory, and that emotion spilled over into the dugout.
“Regan’s had a tough go,” Brinson said. “He’s been hurt. He’s always been a leader on the team no matter if he’s on the bench or playing. To see him do that kind of stuff is important.”
They came here wanting to restore the Northwestern State baseball tradition, trusting in a first-time head coach to lead them in that direction.
Brinson pointed out the Demons still have designs on winning a conference title and reaching the NCAA Regionals. While there is work to be done on that front, the original BStro Boys have formed a bond that will not be dissolved.
“We’ve been through the ups and downs with coach (Burroughs), and it’s good to see us going out hot,” Kaufman said. “I know it sounds cliché, but just being out here with the guys, especially Nick and Cort, is what it’s all about. It’s been a dream come true.
“This is what I’ve wanted to do all my life. To be surrounded by guys as great as the ones I’m with means the world.”