NEW ORLEANS — Tulane outfielder Brandon Boudreaux already feels the urgency.
Although Friday marked just the first day of practice before the 2013 Green Wave begin the season, it’s the initial step of his last chance to reach the NCAA tournament. A final opportunity to restore Tulane’s program to the lofty heights it became accustomed to from 1994-2008, when the Wave reached the postseason 12 times.
However, Boudreaux and his fellow seniors have yet to appear in the NCAA tournament, part of a four-season drought, Tulane’s longest since making its first appearance in 1979.
“We haven’t let down our standards, and we know we’re expected to be there every year, so this year is extremely important for us to get there,” Boudreaux said. “We don’t want to be the group that never got to the regionals, and we need to be aware of that and be focused and ready from day one until the end of the season. We know how much little mistakes and bad days can cost you, and we need to fix problems before they hurt us.
“Now is the time to fill those holes and get the fundamentals corrected so we are ready to win when the season starts.”
A few costly losses and a weaker than expected strength of schedule doomed the Green Wave last season, despite its 38-20 record. And as Tulane coach Rick Jones tries to lift the Wave into a tournament-caliber team this season, he sees a roster full of experience and success, even on the first day of practice.
Tulane returns seven position starters and all but one pitcher from a team that led Conference USA in batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage and finished third in the league in ERA while committing the fewest errors.
“If we could duplicate those numbers, defensively, offensively and on the mound, I’d feel pretty good about our club this year,” Jones said. “What we didn’t do last year was measure up to the RPI standard the NCAA set up, so we have adjusted our scheduling based on the complexion of the selection committee, and the result is we are going on the road more this year than we have in the last 15 years.”
Tulane opens its season at the Texas State Tournament in San Marcos, Texas on Feb. 15 against Sam Houston State.
The Wave will also face a non conference road series at Alabama along with in-state road games against LSU, Southeastern Louisiana, Nicholls State, UL-Monroe and UL-Lafayette.
But playing on the road isn’t enough to quell all of the uneasiness in the program. The Green Wave is going to have to travel and win while answering some lingering questions along the way.
Many of the imposing offensive numbers were built last season by the performance of graduated seniors Jeremy Schaffer and Nick Schneeberger, who supplied Tulane with much of its power from the middle of the lineup.
Jones said he hopes freshman Tim Yandel can step into one of the roles and is counting on breakout seasons from returnees Andrew Garner and Tucker Oakley as well.
“I mean, you can’t really replace two guys like that in the middle of our order, and we’re not really trying to,” Boudreaux said. “We need everyone to step up a little bit, and if we can fill those gaps a bit at a time, our lineup will come around. I think we’ll have a more well-rounded offense, but we probably won’t be able to lean on two power bats like we did at times last year.”
Rather, Tulane is going to count on what Jones considers to be his deepest pitching staff in “a long time.”
While replacing graduated closer and former Catholic High standout D.J. Ponder and his 1.10 ERA and 12 saves is a priority, Tulane has a wealth of options to choose from including former Catholic standout Alex Facundus, who was a freshman All-American in 2011 and compiled a 1.98 ERA in 25 1?3 innings last season.
Other closer candidates include Andrew Reeves, who started nine games last season, and freshman Ian Gibaut, who consistently threw in the mid-90s during the fall, according to Jones.
Despite the depth of experienced options in the bullpen, Jones believes his team’s most pressing matter entering the season is finding a reliable starter to solidify the weekend rotation. Tulane has failed to find a long-standing and imposing Friday night ace during its four-year postseason drought. While solid pitchers have come and gone, matching up with top-flight starters from opposing teams has been a lingering issue in critical Conference USA series.
“It’s huge to have someone who can shut down a club and beat the other team’s Friday night guy, because you are set up so well to win a series,” Jones said. “It’s something we have been missing since we had guys like Brian Bogusevic and Shooter Hunt and it’s made a difference in our results. I do believe we have some guys who can fit in that situation here now.”
Jones prominently pointed to transfer Tony Rizzotti, who left TCU as a freshman in 2011 after undergoing two knee surgeries, then sat out a year at Grayson Community College before dazzling the Green Wave staff in fall practice. Rizzotti displayed a fastball that occasionally reached 96 mph and a complementary slider that can produce strikeouts.
While it’s easy to get excited about a new arm in the rotation, Jones conceded he’s still searching for some answers as practice gets under way and the season approaches.
But he likes what he’s seen so far.
“We have a long way to go,” Jones said. “But I’m excited to get started.”