Hammond, LA (WLOX) - Matt Riser picks up his 2014 Southland Conference Tournament Championship ring, trying to gather the words to describe what it symbolizes. He pauses, and sighs.
"Now you've got me all sentimental and stuff," jokes the Southeastern Louisiana head baseball coach.
You'll forgive Riser if he still gets a little emotional about the day his team clinched that championship: May 24, 2014. It delivered the Lions their first NCAA Tournament berth in 20 years.
"Finally, after getting dog-piled on twice, we got to do our own dog-pile," Riser says.
It justified a coaching hire some saw as risky.
"I had a lot of people bark at me and question that hire," Lions athletic director Jay Aritgues recalls. "They don't question it any more."
And it brought things full circle to a similar celebration Riser experienced years ago with Picayune High School.
With the 2002 Class 4A State Championship in tow, the Maroon Tide slugger began his search for his collegiate destination. What he found was a connection that would change the course of his life forever.
"I had graduated top ten in my class and took the ACT a thousand times, it felt like, to finally get a respectable score to try to go to a four-year school," Riser said. "Then, obviously, Coach Artigues laid down a vision for me. 'Hey man, the academics are always gonna be there for you. You get one shot at this baseball deal. If you truly want to go on to play at the next level, I think this is the best route for you.'"
Artigues - a St. Stanislaus alum himself - recruited Riser to Pearl River Community College, and the success came almost instantly. In his sophomore year, the Wildcats won the 2004 MACJC State Championship, spending some twenty weeks as the top-ranked JUCO team in the country.
"It's a special place for me," said the 2017 Pearl River Athletics Hall of Fame inductee. "To be able to do that close to home, to have my family be able to come up and watch, to have my little brothers come up and watch. Personally, I met my wife there. God's got a good plan for you and a good route. To be a part of that was very fortunate, and obviously I made a life-long friend out of that."
The connection between the two Coast natives remained strong, re-appearing years later in Hammond, Louisiana.
"I knew I wanted to be associated with athletics in some fashion or form," said Riser, who graduated from Tulane in 2007 with a degree in biomedical engineering. "I thought I was going to be on the sports medicine side of things a little bit."
"The values that Matt was raised with with his father and his mother coming up in Picayune, I knew what kind of kid he was," said Artigues, who hired Riser to be a volunteer assistant coach in 2008. "I knew what kind of young man he was."
From volunteer assistant to recruiting coordinator, Riser flourished at Southeastern, working under his mentor for six seasons. But when Artigues received a promotion and had to hire his replacement?
"I knew as soon as I was named (athletic director) I knew exactly what I was gonna do," Artigues said. "(I was going to name Riser) baseball coach. My President asked me if he was gonna get it done, I said there's no doubt."
Becoming one of the country's youngest head coaches at age 29, Riser has not disappointed. In 2014, he led the Lions to a Southland Conference Tournament Championship, a regular season championship in 2015 and back-to-back NCAA Tournament at large bids the last two years, the only non-Power 5 Program in the country to do so.
"The foundation Jay laid when he got here, changing that mindset is extremely tough to do," Riser said. "Obviously, Jay brought me into this program to help do that. Basically, just with the success, we were able to kind of keep that same characteristic, the same blue-collar mentality, but get better players."
Last summer, Riser signed an extension to stay at Southeastern through 2020. But as the rising star continues to lift this up-and-coming program, it's anyone's guess if he'll stay in Hammond, America that long.
"I hope he's here as long as he wants to be here," Artigues said. "I had the question asked to me at the (Baton Rouge Regional) last year, what are you gonna do if an SEC school offers him a job? I said I'm gonna help him pack. I want Matt to do what's best for Matt. If he leaves here, he's gonna leave it a better place than he found it."
If he does stay, it will be, in large part, because of this special Coast Connection: from Pearl River, to Southeastern, to a life-long friendship.
"It's gonna be extremely hard for me to leave this program," Riser said. "The next step for me is taking this program to win a National Championship, and that's the reality of it. We put a lot of hard work into this program, there's been a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this program and this is one that I want to see through."
Riser's ties to the Coast are starting to show through his recruiting as well, adding both Biloxi's Trey Shaffer and Picayune's Peyton Lee to this year's roster. The Lions return to MGM Park on Wednesday, March 14th to square off against Mississippi State.