The night after Gavin Dugas knew he was going to return to Baton Rouge, he sent coach Jay Johnson a text message. Dugas, who was one of three draft eligible veterans to return for one more season under Johnson's leadership, felt like a freshman all over again.
"I told coach Jay in a text the other day I feel like I committed as a freshman again," Dugas said. "I couldn't be more happy."
Dugas, along with pitchers Devin Fontenot and Ma'Khail Hilliard will all return for the 2022 season, shoring up a pitching staff that was filled with uncertainty just a few days ago and replenishing an offensive lineup that Johnson is head over heels excited about.
For Johnson, a trend of this past season that couldn't go unnoticed was the number of teams in the College World Series with veteran rosters. It's one of the first things he pinpointed to the success of those teams in 2021 and the opportunity to return three key pieces like Dugas, Fontenot and Hilliard is a gift.
"They were all old, they were all experienced," Johnson said. "I can't overstate it with how important that is. When you look at their productivity on the field, we wanna be able to pitch at a high level, particularly at the end of the year and Devin and Ma'Khail did. With Gavin, having 19 home runs, he has a chance to be as impactful a hitter as any in college baseball.
"On top of that I've been able to spend a ton of time with these guys the last two weeks and it's been priority No. 1 getting to them as people and I think there's some strong leadership qualities in all of them."
One of the reasons Fontenot decided to come back for a fifth season was the opportunity to enter the starting rotation in 2022. He'll begin preparing for a starter's role in the fall, with the main adjustment being to build stamina to last longer in games.
A rotation of potentially Fontenot, Hilliard and one of the younger arms would put the pitching staff in a much better position than just a few days ago with the future very much uncertain. Returning with a young group in place like Garrett Edwards, Ty Floyd and Will Hellmers, Fontenot could continue to drive up his draft stock as a potential starter.
Hilliard was one of the bright spots of the pitching staff over the last six weeks of the season, returning to his freshman year form and will likely be a starting candidate once again in 2022. The fifth year LSU senior, who recently lost his father in a tragic boating accident said the decision to return weighed heavily on his mind. His father had wanted him to return to LSU shortly before his passing.
From that point on, Hilliard's mindset completely changed on the potential of coming back and spending another season with his second family at LSU baseball.
"My dad tells me he's proud of me after every game, but it really hit me after my last outing at Tennessee," Hilliard said. "He texted me a short paragraph. And he still believed I'm not done yet. I feel like I carry him with me everywhere I go."
Hilliard and Fontenot spent a ton of time talking over the last few weeks and came to the realization that coming back for the 2022 season was what was best for both. Now, Hilliard and Fontenot will both get the opportunity to compete for a starting job for next season as the two veteran arms on the roster.
"LSU is so special because it's literally like a family," Hilliard said. "There's a lot of opportunity for us to come back and improve our draft stock. We had time to think about it and the best decision was for us to come back and be the leaders, take the reigns for LSU."
Johnson and pitching coach Jason Kelly have been hard at work in the transfer portal by adding Southeastern's Trey Shaffer and San Francisco's Eric Reyzelman.
For Dugas, the opportunity to compete for a national championship as well as build his draft stock for next season is a great opportunity. Dugas batted .295 in his first full season as a starter in left field to go along with 19 home runs and 66 RBI. He can't wait to get started with Johnson, who he knows is an offensive guru, and potentially unlock another gear to his game.
Now the trio will focus on fall ball and getting their bodies right to compete on what is a team that will be nationally ranked heading into next season. The potential is there for LSU to make a deep run and all three know that better than anyone.
"To be honest, it's absurd the amount of talent we're going to have on this team," Dugas said. "We're going to have a great opportunity to do a lot of great things, and I really wanted to be a part of it."