Louisiana teams in NCAA baseball postseason carry stories of renewal, second chances
The stories of four Louisiana teams reaching the NCAA baseball tournament are decidedly similar yet decidedly different.
For Louisiana Tech and McNeese, the story is a good one, a story of programs rising from the ashes.
In Ruston, a tornado hit part of the campus at Louisiana Tech on April 25, 2019.
The soccer, softball, tennis and baseball stadiums were severely damaged.
I was fortunate to do a weekend series at J.C. Love Field back in my time serving as the play-by-play voice of the University of New Orleans.
It was a nice, cozy facility then and it was always a pleasure to visit with a wonderful man and legendary voice of the Bulldogs in Dave Nitz.
When I heard about the damage, I immediately thought about the time I spent at the facility doing games.
“The Love Shack,” which the facility is affectionately known as, was torn to pieces, with the concrete overhang collapsing in a pair of spots and damaging many of the seats at the stadium while the outfield wall was torn apart, blown away. The scoreboard was destroyed and there was damage to the batting cages.
The damage forced Tech away from its home field for the remainder of 2019 and for the abbreviated 2020 season.
Out of the rubble rose a beautiful new Love Shack, in time for the 2021 season.
The Bulldogs returned to play on campus for the first time in 675 days on Feb. 25 against Southern Miss.
With a new facility and optimism, the Bulldogs rose up to meet the excitement of a new facility with a special season, not only earning an NCAA tournament bid but chosen to host a regional for the first time ever.
The NCAA tournament appearance is the first since 2016 and the ninth in program history.
When the Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament in 2016, it was the first time in the tournament wince 1987 when Tech came to Privateer Park and went 1-2, losing to UNO in a game that I did on radio, beating Southern and then being eliminated by Cal State Fullerton. Pat Patterson, whose name also graces the current stadium in Ruston, was the coach of the Bulldogs then and he did a marvelous job.
In his fifth season, Lane Burroughs has done a marvelous job of keeping his program together through the adversity of the tornado, having to practice and play games at Ruston High School (three in 2019, five in 2020) and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Bulldogs enter the Ruston regional as the top seed with an impressive 40-18 record and will face No. 4 Rider in its opening game. North Carolina State and Alabama are also there to try to stop Tech.
As the 16th and final national seed, if Tech wins its regional, the Bulldogs would have to travel to overall top national seed Arkansas in the Super Regional round, if the seeds hold.
In the regular season, the Razorbacks won two of three games at Love Field March 12-14.
In Lake Charles, Hurricane Laura had a similar impact on Joe Miller Field on August 27, 2020 to the impact the tornado had on J.C. Love Field.
The football stadium and the new basketball arena, along with most other structures on campus, were severely damaged by winds which reached 137 miles per hour during the peak of the storm.
The stadium, which has been around for 55 years, has undergone many renovations.
In 2005, renovations were a necessity after Hurricane Rita did a number on the facility, inflicting massive damage.
Fortunately, repairs were made in time for the Cowboys to play at “The Jeaux” this season, which turned out to be a special season.
Getting hot at just the right time, McNeese is 32-28 after racing through the Southland Conference tournament in Hammond unbeaten in four games to win the automatic bid.
McNeese heads to Fort Worth to battle top seed TCU, the sixth national seed, with Oregon State and Dallas Baptist also there in a tough regional.
The Cowboys are in the NCAA tournament for the second time in succession, having played in the tournament in 2019 before there was no tournament in 2020.
This year marks the sixth overall NCAA tournament appearance for McNeese and the second for coach Justin Hill.
While Tech and McNeese have overcome extreme adversity, LSU and Southern are relishing the concept of second chances.
The Tigers had high expectations, ranked nationally prior to the start of the season.
Key injuries to key pitchers really hurt the case.
Matthew Beck, perhaps the team’s best reliever, was lost to an elbow injury early on. Beck appeared in just three games.
Top starter Jaden Hill was lost for the season in early April with an elbow injury. Hill made just seven starts.
LSU had to overcome a 1-8 start in the SEC and the Tigers had to sweat out getting a bid to the NCAA tournament.
As it turned out, LSU got in a bit easier than expected, not one of the final four teams to get in the field, directly attributable to the very difficult schedule LSU played in the best conference in the country.
The Tigers defeated both Tech and Southern twice this season and beat McNeese once, going 5-0 against the other Louisiana teams in the NCAA tournament.
LSU will travel as far as any school in the NCAA tournament, a total of 2,461.3 miles, to be exact.
For the second time in four years, the third-seeded Tigers are flying to Oregon.
In 2018, LSU went to Corvallis to play at Oregon State, traveling 2,454.8 miles and did not get out alive.
While Oregon and Gonzaga are very good teams, LSU will not be overwhelmed or intimidated, having faced the likes of Arkansas, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Alabama.
Then, there is the matter of “The Last Dance” for Paul Mainieri, who announced he is retiring at season’s end.
That will certainly provide motivation for his team, which should be relaxed, loose and able to play its best with the circumstances as they are.
This is LSU’s 33rd NCAA tournament appearance. LSU has reached the College World Series 18 times, including five times under Mainieri. The Tigers have won six national championships, including in 2009 under Mainieri.
For what it is worth, LSU has won a two regionals and advanced to the College World Series twice away from Baton Rouge previously. Both came prior to the advent of Super Regionals in 1999.
The first was in New Orleans in the South II Regional, close to home, hosted by UNO, in a series where I was fortunate to broadcast Privateer games.
The second was in 1989, when the Tigers won the Central Regional at College Station, Texas.
Otherwise, LSU has lost in all other regionals and super regionals away from home, including at Starkville (1975), Austin (1995), New Orleans (Tulane-2001), Houston (Rice-2002), Los Angeles (UCLA-2010) and Corvallis (2018).
While the expectations for LSU are at a lower standard than is the norm, there is a path for the Tigers to advance.
Should LSU emerge victorious in Eugene, the Tigers would return to the scene of a crime in Knoxville to likely face a familiar opponent in third national seed Tennessee, if the Volunteers uphold their top seed.
Tennessee swept LSU in a three-game series March 26-28.
Those games were highly competitive, with the Vols winning 3-1 before rallying for a 9-8 victory in 11 innings and a 3-2 win in eight innings in a game scheduled for seven innings.
As for Southern, the Jaguars have a rich history in the NCAA tournament but reaching the tournament this season was certainly unexpected.
Southern struggled through a 20-28 season, though the Jags were 13-11 in the SWAC.
At Toyota Field in Madison, Alabama, Southern won its first game over Alabama State before falling to Prairie View A&M.
The Jaguars had to rise out of the loser’s bracket, winning four straight games, including a thrilling 7-6 victory over Jackson State in the title game to earn the automatic bid from the conference.
Interim head coach Chris Crenshaw did an excellent job of keeping his team together after a 1-6 start. Crenshaw was pressed into duty when Kerrick Johnson departed to work for Major League Baseball in late November, 2020.
Based on results, Crenshaw, a former Jaguar pitcher, certainly merits strong consideration, if not affirmation, to get the job on a permanent basis.
Southern overcame losing streaks of seven and five games in a difficult season.
The Jaguars are in the NCAA tournament for the 14th time, including as a play-in participant three times. All but two of those came under legendary coach Roger Cador. Southern also reached the NAIA district tournament four times.
Southern travels to Austin to take on No. 2 national seed Texas, a daunting task, but the Jaguars will be loose and ready to go. Arizona State and Fairfield are the other two teams in the bracket.
In assessing chances, clearly, Louisiana Tech has the best shot to win its regional but LSU cannot be discounted.
McNeese and Southern will try to pull monumental upsets.
The Bulldogs overcame a huge hit from a tornado.
The Cowboys overcame a huge hit from a hurricane.
The Tigers and Mainieri overcame physical afflictions and disappointing results from high expectations.
The Jaguars overcame losing their coach and losing streaks.
Though the odds may be long, do not sell any of these teams short in the tournament. The overcomers are coming this weekend and are looking to serve notice that no obstacle is too big to overcome.
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Born and raised in the New Orleans area, CCSE CEO Ken Trahan has been a sports media fixture in the community for nearly four decades. Ken started NewOrleans.com/Sports with Bill Hammack and Don Jones in 2008. In 2011, the site became SportsNOLA.com. On August 1, 2017, Ken helped launch CrescentCitySports.com. Having accumulated national awards/recognition (National Sports Media Association, National Football…