New Tulane coach David Pierce has earned bids to the regional round of the NCAA tournament in his past 14 years of college baseball.
That alone makes the vibe around Turchin Stadium much different than it was at the end of the Rick Jones era.
Never mind the inevitable differences in personality and coaching style. After failing to reach the postseason for the past six years, the Green Wave welcomed Pierce’s recent track record of success.
“It’s definitely putting a lot of pressure on us because we have a lot to live up to with what he’s done in the past,” said sophomore pitcher J.P. France, who endured a rough freshman debut (2-3 with a 5.91 ERA in 35 innings). “But our confidence is also just through the roof right now.”
While Tulane struggled to records of 30-28 and 23-29 the past two years, Pierce guided Sam Houston State to 38-22 and 43-19 marks that included postseason victories. The Bearkats took eventual College World Series participant TCU to 22 innings before losing a winners’ bracket game in the Fort Worth regional last season.
Less than a week into preseason practice, and without having played a game yet, France talked about an entirely new feeling in the dugout at Tuesday’s media day.
“The improvement we’ve had from last year is just unbelievable,” he said. “If we stay on the same track we are right now, I feel like we have a really good chance of making regionals.”
Whether Pierce can produce an immediate turnaround remains to be seen — Tulane finished fourth-to-last in the nation in 2014 with a batting average of .226 — but he mentioned his perfect record of reaching the postseason the first time he talked to the team after being hired in June.
The legacy started at Houston, where he was an assistant coach in 2001 and ’02; continued through nine years at Rice, which won a national championship in his first year as an assistant there; and kept going at Sam Houston State, which received at-large invitations to the NCAA regionals in all three years he was coach.
Tulane did not even qualify for the Conference USA tournament last season, when Jones took a leave of absence for health reasons in March that became permanent and assistant Jake Gautreau guided the team the rest of the way. Jones built the program to unprecedented heights, including two trips to the College World Series (2001, 2005) and nine consecutive regional appearances (1998-2006), but almost no one on the current roster was in high school the last time the Wave played past its conference tournament.
The atmosphere around the team had become depressing. Enter Pierce.
His first task when he arrived at Tulane was to try to convince the holdovers to stay. He batted nearly 1.000, retaining the top 12 players in plate appearances and every significant pitcher, and the sales job has continued unabated.
“I can’t sell insurance, but I can sell our coaching staff and baseball to our guys,” he said. “We do every day. We are working with them to bring the right attitude every single day. We are trying to just allow them to release and go play.”
His effort appears to be working.
“The best thing I’ve heard Coach Pierce say, and it covers what type of coach he is, is he told us in a meeting, ‘We will win,’ ” said first baseman Garrett Deschamp, one of three seniors on the team. “That’s all that needs to be said about Coach Pierce.”
Other players said more.
“The one thing I notice is the energy all these coaches bring,” pitcher Alex Massey said. “They expect a lot of us in the classroom, in the weight room and on the field. We just feed off of that. It’s going to help us a lot.”
It’s not like Pierce and the staff he imported from Sam Houston State vowed revolutionary change. They’re just coaching the way they always have.
After finishing below .500 for the first time since 1993 — the year before Jones’ arrival — Tulane’s players were receptive to a new voice and approach.
“(Pierce) is really active with the guys,” said shortstop Stephen Alemais, a top recruit who hit only .241 in a disappointing freshman year before having a big effort (.312 average, 28 stolen bases) for Bethesda in summer ball. “He goes out there, he hits fungoes, he pitches, he throws batting practice for us. His energy is there, and we want to bring it back and match it.”
The tenseness of playing for their coaches’ jobs — which the players admitted weighed on them last season — is gone.
“(Pierce and his staff) bring a different mentality,” said pitcher Corey Merrill, whose 0-5 record with a respectable 3.60 ERA showed how much Tulane struggled at the plate. “It’s more relaxed, but with a high intensity to put pressure on the other team, which I like a lot. I think it’s going to be very successful.”