With Tulane’s elimination from the NCAA tournament’s Baton Rouge regional a virtual certainly entering the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday night, every player on the team was standing along the rail outside the dugout, screaming encouragement to the final batters.
The disappointment of an early exit did not take away the excitement about what they accomplished in coach David Pierce’s first season and what they expect to achieve in the near future. After six years of wandering in the wilderness, Tulane (35-25) clawed its way to a regional berth for the first time since 2008.
“Just to have the opportunity this year with these guys and this coach staff was amazing,” said Garrett Deschamp, one of only two seniors on the postseason roster. “Next year’s team is going to be great. That’s all I can say.”
Pierce’s rebuilding project is far from finished, Tulane’s 10-1 and 8-2 defeats to UNC-Wilmington at Alex Box Stadium proved. The Wave fell behind 8-0 in both games and never recovered, leaving Baton Rouge with the memory of three long rain delays and one victory, 15-3 against No. 4 seed Lehigh, tucked in between the losses.
That they were there at all was cause for celebration.
“I’m very proud of our team,” Pierce said. “It was just a great job of getting to where we came this year, the ability to get into this regional and learn and have this experience to build on and hopefully create some hunger for the younger players.”
Pierce inherited a team that finished below .500 in 2014 for the first time since 1993. The Green Wave hit .226 last season — its lowest average in nearly 50 years — and lost its top two starting pitchers in Tyler Mapes and Randy LeBlanc.
Yet Pierce duplicated the achievement of predecessor Rick Jones, who took over a team that finished 23-31 in 1993 and guided it to a regional in Baton Rouge, starting a run of 12 postseason trips in 15 years, plus two College World Series appearances.
Pierce said he was not satisfied with winning one game in Baton Rouge, but it beat the alternative. He extended his perfect record of reaching regionals to 15 years — 11 as an assistant and the past four as a head coach.
“This was one of the toughest seasons that I’ve had as a coach, but I also think it was one of the most rewarding seasons as a coach,” he said. “(Going) 35-25, that’s a lot of losses in my opinion, but there’s so many great wins there, and we just kept fighting.”
The next step is getting more firepower at the plate. Tulane improved its batting average to .253 but still averaged only 4.35 runs, the second-lowest total in the American Athletic Conference and below 200th nationally.
Shortstop Stephen Alemais, who hit .312, was the only Wave player above .285. Hunter Williams’ 28 RBIs were the lowest for a Tulane team leader since 1973. Tulane was shut out seven times and needed a two-out hit in the finale against UNCW to avoid an eighth blanking.
“We want to always be able to score in multiple ways,” Pierce said. “We want to be a little quicker at the top of the lineup and the bottom of the lineup and be a little more powerful in the middle.”
Still, he was not ready Sunday to talk much about the future, preferring to reflect on the big wins that propelled Tulane to the postseason.
In its opening series, the Wave came back from a 5-0 deficit in the final two innings to win 9-5 at Pepperdine, setting the tone for a year of resiliency.
After starting 4-7 in the AAC, the Wave rebounded to finish 13-11 and in a tie for third with South Florida in the nation’s third-toughest conference in RPI.
After losing the first two games of road series against Houston and East Carolina, the Wave salvaged Sunday finales. It won three straight at Cincinnati for its first conference road sweep in seven years.
And after losing the opener of its final regular-season series at Memphis, the Wave won both games of a doubleheader it had to sweep to put itself in position for a regional spot.
With every pitcher and every position player but Deschamp and fellow infielder Tyler Wilson eligible to return, that toughness could pay off next spring.
“It was a great season,” said right fielder Lex Kaplan, who played every inning of every game. “I’m glad we got to (a regional), and from here I see everything going up. I’m excited for next year and ready to start working.”