A decade later, Tulane-LSU super regional still an amazing weekend
Has it really been a decade?
It was ten years ago this month that Tulane and LSU faced off in a best-of-three super regional at Zephyr Field.
There were enough subplots for a good Hollywood script: the defending national champions, who had won five NCAA titles in a 10-year span; their legendary coach, who had already announced he was retiring at the end of the season; and their longtime in-state rival, looking to make the College World Series for the first time.
And it wouldn’t be played on either team’s campus, but rather at the four-year-old Shrine on Airline, which could seat 10,000-plus and had hosted Tulane’s home games against LSU since 1998.
Eighteen months ago, in our review of the decade gone by, we named it the best event of the decade, and with good reason.
Thanks to the insights of some who played large parts that weekend, we can take a detailed look back.
When the NCAA announced its field of 64 on May 21, 2001, the stars were aligned.
Tulane, led by All-America third baseman Jake Gautreau and national freshman of the year Michael Aubrey, was the No. 5 national seed and was hosting a regional at Turchin Stadium for the first time.
LSU, which had eight future big leaguers on its roster – the double-play tandem of Ryan Theriot and Mike Fontenot, infielder Aaron Hill, outfielders Todd Linden and Sean Barker, and pitchers Roy Corcoran, Brian Wilson and Shane Youman – was hosting for the 12th consecutive year at Alex Box Stadium.
The regional winners were paired together to meet in a super regional the following weekend, with the survivor advancing to the CWS.
The Green Wave defeated Southern and Oklahoma State twice to advance to the supers. After wins over Minnesota and Virginia Commonwealth, the Tigers needed two tries to championship Sunday to eliminate VCU and move on.
The stage was set – sort of. The only thing left for the NCAA baseball committee to decide is where the stage would be.
Tulane had offered super regional bids for both on campus and Zephyr Field. LSU had placed a bid as well.
These days, it’s clear cut – if you;re a national seed, have no facility issues and advance to the super regionals, you’re at home. But it wasn’t so clear cut back then. In 1999, for instance, Cal State Fullerton was a national seed, but was sent on the road to Ohio State for the supers.
“That was only three years into the supers,” Tulane coach Rick Jones recalled this week. “You’re still trying to learn how this process is going to work.”
Even though no announcement of the site had been made yet, fans weren’t waiting for the news.
“After we won the regional,” former Tulane associate AD Scott Sidwell recalled, “I head up to (Tulane athletic director) Rick Dickson’s office. We’re watching on his TV the (LSU) game, and LSU wins. Then it kind of sinks in and dawns on us.
“Not within two minutes of LSU winning, the phones started ringing. By 6:00 the next morning, we had people lined up, and we hadn’t even announced our ticket policy.”
The official news would come down Monday afternoon – the site was Zephyr Field.
“Tulane obviously earned the right to host,” the NCAA’s Dennis Poppe said at the time, “and to accommodate the expected fan interest the committee opted to go for the larger field.”
The Z’s had a four-game home series against Sacramento scheduled for Friday through Monday, but postponed Friday’s game to part of a Sunday night doubleheader to make room for the super regional.
Zephyr Field opened in 1997, and had hosted Tulane-LSU games since 1998.
“It wasn’t like we were going to do something unprecedented,” Jones said. “We knew that was the venue we had to go to. Of course, the NCAA had done their research as well. It’s a win-win for everybody and it turned out to be that way.”
The buildup to Friday night was only beginning.
If the water cooler discussions and media coverage weren’t enough, Tulane officials quickly found out exactly what they had on their hands when it came time to put tickets on sale for the event.
“At one point,” Tulane associate athletic director Vince Granito recalled, “the line went all the way from the Wilson Center to Claiborne Avenue” – or the equivalent of two city blocks.
“It was one of the most surreal weeks ever,” Jones said. “The Tulane fans were just champing at the bit and the LSU fans had all that success for all those years. There’s a lot of history, but for us, here’s a chance to maybe have a breakthrough. Skip had already announced his retirement.
“All the things leading up to that week, the thing I kept trying to stay focused on with our staff was the task at hand instead of the hype.”
There would be plenty of stories of the extremes people went through to get tickets, from LSU fans making donations to Tulane’s program to tickets being sold at six times the face value.
“I got a call from (the late state senator and Tulane season ticket holder) John Hainkel,” Sidwell said. “He called me from the floor of the legislature. He was cracking up. He said this was the first time he had ever been able to leverage Tulane baseball in the legislature.”
“A friend of mine had a suite at Zephyr Field,” said former LSU pitcher Ronnie Rantz, who won the right to televise the super regional to a syndicated audience throughout the state. “They sold that suite to a group of doctors in New Orleans for $25,000 for the weekend.
“People were excited to get a spot on the (levee in right field). They were happy just to get a ticket anywhere.”
At the pre-event news conference, Tigers coach Skip Bertman put his LSU career, and the weekend, in perspective. “I think it’s a wonderful thing for me personally that a game is between two Louisiana schools with 12,000 seats, and you still can’t get a ticket,” he said. “Eighteen years ago, we couldn’t give them away.
“There’s no region in the nation where they will draw more people or more money. I wish it could have been in the Superdome, where they could have had 30,000 fans, because it would have attracted a lot of positive attention for Louisiana college baseball.”
First pitch of game one wasn’t until shortly after 6:30 Friday evening, but fans of both teams began arriving at Zephyr Field long before then.
“It was a real exciting atmosphere, a tremendous atmosphere,” said longtime LSU baseball supporter Mike Serio. “We were so used to having the regionals in Baton Rouge, but all of a sudden the tables were turned.”
Jones realized just how big this weekend would be when the team bus arrived at the ballpark around 4 o’clock.
“When we pulled up in the bus at Zephyr Field,” Jones recalled, “the police had to part crowds to get us off the bus. The parking lots were slammed with tailgaters.”
Jones recalled a funny moment as the team drove through the parking lot. “The LSU people are thinking it’s their bus and they’re waving at us,” he said. Once they realized it was the Tulane bus – well, let’s just say the fans stopped waving with their entire hand.
The opener turned out to be a classic.
Three batters into the game, LSU took the lead on a two-run homer by Fontenot. The first inning damage could have been much worse, but the Tigers left the bases loaded against Aubrey.
It stayed 2-0 until the bottom of the sixth when Tulane scored three times on an RBI double by Gautreau and a two-run single by Aubrey.
The Tigers tied it in the seventh against Tulane reliever Barth Melius on an RBI single by his former high school teammate, Wally Pontiff.
Melius and LSU starter Lane Mestepey then traded zeroes until Mestepey departed after 10 innings. Wilson – who nine years later would close out a World Series for the San Francisco Giants – came on in the 11th and picked up where Mestepey left off.
Finally, in the top of the 13th, David Raymer’s sacrifice fly scored Matt Heath to break the tie. Tulane put the tying run on base in the bottom of the inning, but Wilson got Aaron Feldman to bounce into a game-ending double play.
“That was a very good Tulane team,” said Rantz. “When you win Game 1, though, you feel good about your chances.”
“They turned a double play to end the game,” Jones recalled, “so you go from trying to win the game to immediately, ‘what have I got to say to these guys?’ And I walked down in the tunnel, and (Gautreau) said, ‘Coach, I got ’em.’ I didn’t say anything to the team that night.”
Gautreau, now an assistant coach for the Green Wave, picks up the story.
“I meet with the guys and had a little pep talk, something positive, something quick, ‘let’s get out of here, we still have a chance to win this series.’ I always asked if anybody ever had anything to say, and nobody ever said a word.
“Andy Cannizaro, who’s a senior at the time but didn’t say anything all year, said ‘I’ve got something to say.’ He said, ‘Tonight, we played average. They played the best they could possibly play. We took their best bolt, and we still almost won this ballgame. We WILL win Saturday and Sunday.’ ”
A team that most expected would leave the ballpark with heads hung low after a tough extra-inning loss, thanks to the words of a couple of players, suddenly had a different attitude.
A little more than 13 hours after the final out of Game 1 was recorded, Saturday’s second game got underway – with a bang.
Jon Kaplan, known more for his speed and defense, led off the top of the first – LSU was the home team in game two – with a home run to left.
Cannizaro followed with a double down the left field line, Gautreau drove him in with a single, and James Jurries followed with a triple to center.
The first four Green Wave batters had collectively hit for the cycle, and by the time Tulane pitcher Nick Bourgeois took the mound, he had a 4-0 lead.
“(Friday night) was a tough way to lose,” said Gautreau. “On Saturday, when Kaplan hit that home run – I remember thinking, this series is over. After that at bat, I thought it was over.”
Tulane would increase the lead to 7-0 before LSU rallied against Bourgeois with four runs in the bottom of the seventh. Joey Charron came on to get the final out of the seventh and pitched two more scoreless innings to close out a 9-4 Green Wave victory.
Series tied, with the deciding game Sunday afternoon. Either Skip Bertman would end his career with one more trip to Omaha, or Rick Jones would make his first.
Recalled Jones: “I remember saying, ‘Tomorrow, we either change forever or go back to what we were.’ “
It was evident that when the sun came up on Sunday, June 3, 2001, Tulane was playing for more than the people in its dugout.
At the team hotel, Jones recalled, “I get a call from a former player who says, ‘make sure we got these guys ready to play today.’ What it said to me was – how important it was to everybody who’s worn the green.”
Said Gautreau: “We were playing for this program, this school, this town. Even the ladies at Subway knew what was going on. It didn’t matter where you went.”
Jones would hand the ball in the deciding game to left-hander Beau Richardson. “Beau had pitched good against Memphis in the conference tournament,” he said. “Early, he was a little shaky, but (Kaplan) made a couple plays, and then he settled in.”
Tulane took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first on an RBI single by James Jurries. It stayed that way until the bottom of the fourth.
Aubrey led off the fourth with a single and Matt Groff walked, bringing James Burgess to the plate in a key situation that turned into a bit of cat-and-mouse between the two head coaches.
“I’m watching Skip,” said Jones, “and I’m looking at Pontiff (at third base). Burgess is not a bunter, but if (Pontiff) stayed even with the bag, I was going to bunt. Bertman’s watching me and I’m just watching him. I won’t put a signal on.”
The 11,870 people jammed into Zephyr Field had no idea what was happening.
“Bertman takes his cap, turns it sideways a little bit,” said Jones. It’s as if Bertman was telling Jones, make up your mind. Finally, he did.
“Pontiff was two steps in front of the bag,” Jones said, “so I took the bunt off and he hit it right down the line. It could have been a triple play, but it was a double.”
And arguably the turning point of the game. Burgess’ hit drove in one run, and when Linden misplayed the ball, a second run scored and Tulane led 3-0. Four more hits and a pitching change later, the Green Wave led 7-0.
By the ninth, it was 7-1 and Richardson was back out to finish what he had started. The Tigers had two on and two out when Johnnie Thibodeaux lifted a fly ball to right fielder Matt Groff.
“It was a sun ball,” said Jones. “Groff caught it low, he turned sideways just enough. The ball drops, you never know what can happen.”
Ball securely in glove, the Wave had secured its first-ever berth in the College World Series, defeating its archrival in the process. Ironically, 15 years earlier, LSU clinched its first trip to Omaha by defeating Tulane.
“The only thing I felt then was complete, total relief,” Jones said. “We were supposed to win it in my mind.”
Seven days since the matchup was set, and nearly 45 hours after the first pitch was delivered, the two head coaches met behind home plate.
“Bertman hugged me,” Jones said, “and he said to me, ‘Congratulations. I need to talk to your team and you need to hear me. Let ’em do the victory lap first.’ “
After watching countless Tiger teams take victory laps on championship Sundays, for the Tulane players and their fans, the roles were suddenly reversed.
“That lap,” Gautreau said, “were bawling. We were shaking people’s hands, they wouldn’t let you go.”
Said Jones: “I know how much it meant to our fan base to win that.”
No one knew what was coming next except Jones and Bertman. As the Green Wave team gathered behind second base, two head coaches were there to talk to them.
In so many words, Bertman told the Tulane players not to be in awe of the situation that awaited them in Omaha.
“I was definitely surprised by that,” Rantz said. “It was a neat gesture. At that point, it’s not about LSU-Tulane. It’s about the state of Louisiana in the College World Series.”
Said Jones: “All the times you’re out by yourself, just going through practice plans, thinking about how do you get this team (to the CWS), what it would feel like, what you would say.
“After Skip (spoke to the team), there’s nothing I can say. I can’t top it. I’m not going to try to top it.”
Both coaches then made their way to the media room.
Recalled Jones: “What I said in the (interview room) was, ‘Isn’t it interesting that the last pep talk (Bertman) ever gave was to a Tulane team?’ ”
Said Rantz, “Skip’s last press conference, that was pretty emotional. I hugged him in the hallway afterward and we were both getting misty-eyed.”
The ledgers will show that Tulane finished its season nine days later after a 1-2 showing in Omaha with a school-record 56 wins, while Bertman’s final LSU team ended its season 44-22-1.
The other numbers from the weekend were staggering.
The three games drew 11,719, 11,679 and 11,870, respectively – at the time, the three largest crowds in super regional history. While the single-game mark was topped six years later at Mississippi State, the total of 35,268 remains the largest for a super regional, and by all accounts, it’s the most ever to see a three-game college baseball series. (Editor’s note: The Arkansas-Missouri State super regional in 2015 surpassed the Tulane-LSU record by drawing 35,730 for a three-game series.)
By comparison, the series that weekend between the Philadelphia Phillies and Montreal Expos drew a total of 19,581 fans.
“We had ’em stuffed in every nook and cranny,” Sidwell said.
“That fire marshal had to turn his head,” Jones said of the Sunday crowd.
The TV ratings were amazing too.
“When we’ve done LSU baseball (regular season) games, we’d be happy with a 4 (rating) on a Sunday,” said Rantz. “On Friday in extra innings, it was off the charts crazy, something like a 25 rating and 35 or 40 share. The average was like a 15 rating, which is still crazy.”
The sudden surge in popularity led the two teams to move their April 2002 regular-season meeting in New Orleans from Zephyr Field to the Superdome. It drew 27,673 – at that point, the largest crowd ever to see a college baseball game.
What if the Dome would have been available to host the super regional 10 months earlier – what would those crowds have been like?
We can only imagine. Just like we can only imagine if we will once again have a sports weekend as special as that one a decade ago.
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Lenny was involved in college athletics starting in the early 1980s, when he began working Tulane University sporting events while still attending Archbishop Rummel High School. He continued that relationship as a student at Loyola University, where he graduated in 1987. For the next 11 years, Vangilder worked in the sports information offices at Southwestern Louisiana (now UL-Lafayette) and Tulane;…