Just Win Baby: 1995 NLU baseball team did just that

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Editor’s note: The 1995 Northeast Louisiana baseball team is having a reunion Friday and Saturday in Monroe. The ULM baseball team is hosting its annual Hacker’s Classic golf tournament on Friday, Oct. 23, with a Southland Conference Championship ring ceremony for the 1995 team at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 24, at the L Club House in the south end zone at Malone Stadium.

by Troy Mitchell

It was 25 years ago that a group of 32 players from all over the country came to Monroe, Louisiana, to play baseball for a second-year head coach and a program that had not won a championship in 12 years.

In 1995, ULM (then Northeast Louisiana University) was known mostly for its nationally ranked football teams, led by Hall of Fame coaches Pat Collins and Dave Roberts, and its dominating basketball teams coached by the legendary Mike Vining.

Indian Field, now Warhawk Field, was one of the premier facilities in the region, but most of those in attendance were parents and family members. Crowds would seldom reach 200 at any one game.

The excitement of a coach, who had been one of the top assistant coaches in the country and part of a National Championship program, came to Monroe prior to the 1994 season.

When Ray “Smoke” Laval was hired in late summer of 1993, he said it would take three or four years to build a program that would contend for a Southland Conference title and advance to an NCAA Regional.

It didn’t take near as long for Laval to fulfill his promise. After a dismal 20-33 season in 1994, Laval knew he had to make some drastic changes.

While serving as Skip Bertman’s top assistant for 10 years at Louisiana State University, Collegiate Baseball dubbed Laval as the nation’s top recruiter. Laval started from scratch after that 1994 campaign, bringing in 20 new faces in his first recruiting class.

That class was a great mix of junior college transfers, along with some of the best talent in the state of Louisiana as well as local stars.

The 1995 team was tabbed to finish eighth in the preseason Southland Conference Coaches Poll. However, they exceeded all expectations following a ninth-place finish in the league the previous year.

Laval’s task was to get his team to believe they could win, so he adopted the motto “Just Win Baby.” By implementing “The System” his team would eventually become one of the most successful teams in school history, building a program that was consistently in the national rankings in the latter half of the 1990s and early 2000s.

“The System” that Laval brought to ULM/NLU was simple: play solid smart pitch-by-pitch fundamental baseball, know the current situation and be aggressive. It involved dominating pitching and timely hitting. Those who have played for Laval heard those words constantly. Plain and simple, it’s winning baseball.

It wasn’t a great start to the season, as the Indians started off 6-7 including two losses to NCAA Division II Tarleton State to begin the year. However, a 13-inning, 8-6 win over Alabama two weeks later began to turn things around and had the team believing.

Despite losing two of three games to begin SLC play against eventual regular-season champion Northwestern State, Northeast went on to win 19 of its next 22 games, including sweeping two games from No. 23 Mississippi and upsetting No. 7 Mississippi State.

“I really felt that a switch went off after the games with Ole Miss and Mississippi State,” catcher Mike Thompson said. “We really began to realize what Smoke was preaching and we rolled with it. We had a new confidence and began to believe we could beat anyone we played.”

Having just three seniors on the squad, Gary “Gumbo” Aucoin, Martin Crawford and Stacey Wilcox, NLU would make a run at the regular-season title, finishing third with a 16-7 conference record.

At conference meetings prior to the beginning of the season, the league coaches and conference officials didn’t believe NLU would be one of the top four team that would advance to the SLC Tournament in Shreveport, so they disregarded Laval’s concern about the tournament being played during the institution’s finals week.

“In not so many words, they believed we had no shot of making the tournament and went ahead and scheduled the tournament during our finals week,” Laval said.

Although the team posted a 34-18 record and a third-place finish in the league, no one earned first-team All-SLC honors. Cris Coffield and Brian Carter earned second-team honors while Denny Bair and Wilcox earned honorable mention.

It showed little respect for the program, but how quickly that changed as the team would sweep through the SLC Tournament to win its first conference title since 1983.

In game one of the tournament, Bair’s dominating pitching performance lifted the Indians to a 4-0 win over McNeese State. The Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, product, with a 91-mph fastball, scattered seven hits and struck out seven batters in a complete game performance.

Monroe native Andy Russell led the team offensively going 3-for-4 with a double and RBI, while Wilcox and Tommy Lewis each had RBI doubles.

In game two against UT Arlington, Wilcox’s one-out double in the bottom of the 10th lifted the team to a 6-5 win over the Mavericks to advance the team to the SLC Championship Game.

In the championship, Wilcox went 5-for-5 with a double, home run and three RBI to lead the Indians to a 10-5 victory over McNeese State.

There were several stars in the game as Corey Taylor blasted a towering home run, with Coffield adding three hits, including a double, triple and two RBI.

Andy Weaver got the start on the hill and pitched the first five innings, but it was Tiger Bell who shutout the Cowboys the final four innings while striking out four.

Russell, Wilcox, Lewis and Bair all earned all-tournament honors while Wilcox was named MVP after going 7-for-14 with three doubles, a home run and five RBI.

“That’s all well and good, but the most important thing was winning the title,” a humble Wilcox said. “We stuck together as a team and we believed in Coach Laval’s system.”

“Our first goal of the season was to finish as one of the top four teams in the conference and advance to the tournament,” Laval said. “Once we got there, we knew that with dominant pitching and timely hitting, we could win it.”

After a 12-year absence, NLU returned to NCAA postseason play and the Indians were paired up with the No. 1 team in the nation in Cal State Fullerton, which was led by All-Americans Mark Kotsay and Jeremy Giambi. It took the Titans scoring in the bottom of the ninth to avoid the upset. They would later win the 1995 College World Series.

The Indians would then lose to Central Michigan in a slugfest, 14-11, in a game that saw the teams combine for 42 hits with Coffield having four hits, including two home runs.

“This was a club that would never quit,” Laval said. “I felt the turning point that season came in the win over Alabama when Crawford hit that two-run double in the 13th inning. That’s when they began to believe in the system.”

That 1995 team rewrote the record books at the time with over 25 team and individual records being shattered. The accomplishments didn’t go unnoticed by the fans. Indian Field began to draw larger crowds with an average of 913 fans per game. The Indians would finish 20-5 at home in 1995.

“It was great to see what we built,” Laval said. “There was an atmosphere that was created that fans enjoyed and wanted to be part of. We had a great mix of players, including a lot of local talent, that people wanted to see play.”

Thompson echoed those remarks.

“My first year in 1993, we could hear our parents talking in the stands. Smoke had everyone paying attention to detail, from concessions, the ticket booth, maintenance, cleanliness of the stadium and more. We all took pride in playing at home and we had great results.”

The 1995 team was the start of a period where the baseball program would be ranked at sometime during the season for the next seven years. From 1995-2002, NLU/ULM baseball would go on to win five conference titles, appear in four NCAA Regionals and record 296 wins.

During those seven years, 51 players earned all-conference honors, six different players earned conference player of the year, there were nine All-America selections and an Olympic Gold Medalist in Ben Sheets.

There is no doubt that it was the 1995 Indians under Hall of Fame Coach Ray “Smoke” Laval that was instrumental in helping launch a historic baseball program.

“It all started with Smoke and Coach Gregg Patterson, who recruited some great talent from all over the country as well as combining with some young local players, which was the foundation of the program,” Thompson said. “We all came together and really respected each other. It’s a great testament to what the program meant to us. We have all continued to be close friends and we realize we were part of something special. We all want continued success for Coach (Michael) Federico and this program and we all want to be a part of that success.”

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