With the Baton Rouge bracket already having come and gone, the sense of anticipation at Tulane’s watch party reached a crescendo as the Lafayette pairings were revealed.
To everyone’s surprise, the Green Wave’s name did not appear. But second-year coach David Pierce was OK with missing out on potential rematches with LSU or Louisiana-Lafayette.
Seconds later, the Tulane baseball team learned it would head to Oxford, Mississippi, for regional play after being bypassed for the two Louisiana regionals. The Wave is the No. 2 seed and will face No. 3 seed Boston College at 3 p.m. Friday, with top-seeded host Ole Miss playing No. 4 seed Utah at 7 p.m.
“I was a little surprised (at going out of state), but I like it,” Pierce said. “I’m glad we have an opportunity to have a different experience. It’s going to be a great environment. It’s going to be a fun regional, and the kids will really look forward to going there.”
They certainly are anticipating a different result than in 2015, when Tulane broke a six-year postseason drought but went 1-2 at Alex Box Stadium, dropping a pair of uncompetitive games to UNC Wilmington around a victory against Lehigh and never getting to play LSU.
This time, anything short of a regional championship would be a letdown. Tulane (39-19), the American Athletic Conference regular-season champion, entered its league tournament on the bubble for a hosting role rather than making the tournament field.
“We’re confident right now,” shortstop Stephen Alemais said. “We’re more mature than last year. We didn’t know what to expect last year. We just have to keep playing our game. When we’re clicking on the right cylinders, we’re going to be perfectly fine. We have every aspect of the game: pitching, defense and hitting.”
Those aren’t just empty words. Tulane finished second in the AAC in runs, second in ERA and first in fielding percentage. The Wave believes it is balanced enough to beat anyone, including Ole Miss (43-17), which narrowly missed a national seed and is sixth in the latest Baseball America ranking.
Tulane’s record against No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in the tournament bracket is 6-1, with two-game sweeps of LSU and Southern Miss, a win against Arizona and a two-game split with Louisiana-Lafayette.
“We have to be able to manage our adrenaline and our emotions and be able to calm ourselves down and let our talent show through,” said second baseman Jake Willsey, who became Tulane’s third player with 10 or more home runs last week. “We feel we’re as good as any other team in that regional, so if we play like we can, we’ll be just fine and go into a super regional.
“We’re definitely happy to be able to go somewhere new.”
The winner in Oxford will be matched up with the champion of the Miami regional — meaning a trip to south Florida if the Hurricanes take care of business — but the Wave has more immediate concerns. First is the Friday afternoon opener against Boston College (31-20), which is playing in the postseason for the first time since 2009.
The Eagles won series against national seed Louisville and regional hosts North Carolina State and Virginia, mitigating their sub-.500 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference (13-16 counting the play-in game for the tournament).
Staff ace Emerson Gibbs (6-3 2.44 ERA) figures to start that pivotal game and is looking forward to the challenge.
“I love it,” he said. “We have about four or five guys who can go do it, but it would be great if I could get us off to a good start.”
Like Pierce, Gibbs said he has never been to Oxford. Long before they arrived on campus, Tulane won its lone road regional in 18 attempts at Ole Miss in 2004.
The surprise at being left out of Lafayette became burgeoning confidence as the news set in.
“I thought either LSU or ULL and had no idea about Ole Miss, but I’m excited for it,” said right fielder Lex Kaplan, whose older brother, Jonny, led Tulane to the College World Series in 2001. “It’s going to be fun. We’re dangerous. If we get hot, you can see us in the College World Series, and I feel like we’re about to get hot. I don’t think we’ve had a team like this in a really long time. We can really do something this year.”
When LSU’s regional was announced without Tulane, several fans at the Glazer Family Club inside Turchin Stadium cheered. The reaction from the players was more muted, with one exception.
“To be quite honest, I wanted to go to LSU and beat them at their own regional because we already beat them twice, so that would have been more fun,” Alemais said. “But we look forward to going to Ole Miss and playing them over there.”