HAMMOND – It didn’t take long for Southeastern Louisiana baseball coach Matt Riser to reflect on the point last season when he knew Preston Faulkner, now entering his junior season, had arrived.
The Lions were in the thick of the Southland Conference race in the opening game of three-game series at Incarnate Word and trailing 6-5 in the eighth inning. With two runners on, UIW lifted pitcher Bennie Martinez for Luke Taggart to face Faulkner.
“We needed a big at-bat from him in a big moment, and they brought their guy in – the dude – one of the best guys in the conference, and so basically matched up mano y mano – their dude versus our dude,” Riser said. “(Taggart) had come in to pitch his strength and what is Preston’s so-called weakness in the (scouting) report. He took the weakness and that guy’s strength and flipped it on him …”
The result was a three-run home run from Faulkner that helped the Lions to an 8-6 win.
“I think it was in that moment we looked at each other and said, ‘Yeah man, this kid’s got it. This kid’s got it all together,'” Riser said. “It’s coming full circle for him, and this kid’s going to be a special player, a special hitter. The kid’s a winner, man. That’s what he does.”
It’s an at-bat Faulkner, a Live Oak graduate and former All-Parish Player of the Year, remembers well.
“That proved to the coaches that they can trust me and I’m going to come through in big moments, and I’m not going to let the pressure get to me,” he said.
Getting to that moment was an uphill climb for Faulkner, who batted .150, going 3-for-20 in 15 appearances as a freshman while starting seven games.
“The biggest thing we talk about with freshmen coming in, you don’t know how they’re going to adapt and maturity of how they handle themselves is a big part of it,” Riser said. “I didn’t do him any favors in all honesty. He was in the opening day lineup as a true freshman. I only gave him one at-bat, then we made a move to the left-hander in that DH spot. Maybe he lost a little bit of confidence there early, and it wasn’t that I wasn’t confident in him. It was a just a matter of playing the situation. The situation got played out early in that game.”
After that freshman season, Faulkner played summer ball with the Acadiana Cane Cutters, which he said helped him get his confidence back.
“My freshman year, I didn’t see as much pitching as I felt like I needed to or wanted to see, so summer ball helped a lot, and I just told myself, just do what you can. Just trust in yourself,’” Faulkner said. “I knew what I was capable of, and that helps a lot if you just go into the box with a positive mindset.
“Summer ball gave me a lot of feel for the college pitching my freshman summer going into my sophomore year," Faulkner said, "and it helped me rebuild my confidence because my confidence wasn’t 100 percent my freshman year, but last year I built it back up and I knew what I could do, and I just proved that I could do it.”
Riser praised Faulkner’s work ethic in getting past his freshman season, while also noting it’s one of the reasons that drew the Lions to him in the first place.
“We recruited Preston because he had the power but also had the aptitude and the approach at the plate to be able to hit for average and power,” Riser said. “It’s rare to see it, especially in this game when you talk about amateur players – not professional players – they’ve got one or the other, and to do both, usually they’re in professional baseball after high school.
“… He didn’t really over-think it,” Riser said of Faulkner working through his freshman season. “He kept working hard and just stayed with the plan. I think that’s the biggest part of it. He knew he would persevere through it. He knew he was a good hitter and a good player and he would find his way into a role in our starting lineup his sophomore year.”
The confidence Faulkner built while playing for the Cane Cutters carried over into his sophomore season. He said it didn’t take him long to realize the trip to summer ball paid off when he doubled in his first at-bat of the year during a 3-for-4 effort in which he knocked in two runs and scored twice in a 13-8 loss to Louisiana Tech.
“I smoked one in the gap, and that gave me a ton of confidence, got a little bit of weight off my shoulders (to) get that first hit out of the way,” Faulkner said.
Faulkner was a mainstay during his sophomore season, starting all 60 games while batting .273 and leading the team in doubles (17) and home runs (11) with 47 runs and 48 RBIs.
“You just contribute every day and just find a way to make an impact on the game and make an impact for the team,” Faulkner said of what kept him in the lineup last season. “If that comes with going 1-for-4 with three strikeouts and a home run, you still did something productive for the team. It gives coach a lot of confidence in you, and (he) knows that you’re going to come through in pressure moments and just having confidence in yourself that you’re going to do it too, and it will keep you in the lineup.”
Faulkner also said it helps to have a selective memory sometimes when it comes to playing baseball.
“I just wake up every day on game day and get after it,” he said. “It’s the same thing. I’ve been playing this game since I was a little kid, and nothing’s changed. It’s a ball and a bat, and I just tell myself every day ‘just have a good game’. You’ve got to forget, because the game’s full of failures, and if you let the failures get to you, then it’s going to get the best of you. If you just go in there and just tell yourself this a new day, new game and flush all the negative things that happened the day before, you find a way to contribute the next day and help your team win the game.”
Faulkner finished the season as an honorable mention selection on the All-Southland Conference team. He heads into the 2020 season as the Lions’ lone representative on the SLC’s Preseason All-Conference team as second-team first baseman after seeing time at designated hitter and in left field last season.
“A big question mark in all honesty this year was, ‘Hey man, where to do we put Preston defensively?” Riser said. “We know he can hit, but right now we really need to open up a DH spot. He’s too athletic just to be sitting in the DH spot. He can run a little bit, and what are we going to do with him?’”
Riser said the position change is something Faulkner has embraced.
“Plenty of guys in the country are the first baseman, but let’s be honest, man, he’s a hitter …” Riser said. “He committed himself to the defensive side of things, hasn’t lost the vision of being a complete player …”
The Lions, who open the season at UL-Lafayette at 6 p.m. Friday, will also look to Faulkner for his leadership with SLU looking to replace the largest senior class in the nation from a team that went 33-27 last year.
“It feels weird,” Faulkner said of being one of the Lions’ veteran players. “I feel like I just got here, I can tell you that. With all the new guys, I definitely see a bright future … We’ve got a lot of guys. We’ve got a lot of tools in the outfield – speed, we’ve got power. We’ve got guys who are going to hit for a high average, and then we’ve got young guys that are going to contribute a lot.”
Riser doesn't have a doubt Faulkner can be one of the leaders his team needs this season.
“We lost a lot offensively,” Riser said. “We lost a lot on the (pitching) staff, but we return a great core coming back, and not only from a playing standpoint and an ability standpoint, but from a leadership standpoint, from a work ethic standpoint and just from a hard-nosed mentality standpoint. Preston was a middle linebacker in high school. You know what you’re getting mentality-wise when he goes out on the field. We love recruiting those football players that do both. I think that’s a big part of his perseverance. He knows we’re going to ride him pretty hard. His success is going to be probably a determiner of our team success. If he’s having great success, our team’s winning some ball games. If not, then we’ll have to find some other guys to step up.
“He’s prepared for it. He’s mature enough for it, and he expects it out of himself. I think that’s the neat part about this is that he’s primed for success this year.”
Southeastern was picked fourth in the SLC preseason poll, but Faulkner said the team has its sights set higher than that heading into the season.
“We’ve got a lot to prove with this team, and we will prove a lot, so we’ve just got to stay confident, but we haven’t talked about that at all,” Faulkner said of the preseason poll. “I’m just ready to get this ring. It’s about time for Southeastern to get a ring.”