New baseball coach David Pierce has re-invigorated Tulane’s hope for long-term success, but the Green Wave’s immediate future will hinge on a famous line by Hall of Fame basketball coach Al McGuire.
“The best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores.”
Tulane certainly hopes so. After finishing below .500 for the first time since 1993 with a freshman-laden lineup, the Wave will rely heavily on the same players when it opens the Pierce era with a three-game series at Pepperdine this weekend. If the sophomores don’t improve dramatically, Pierce’s string of 14 consecutive regional appearances as a head coach or assistant (at Houston, Rice and Sam Houston State) likely will end.
Tulane finished 293rd out of 296 Division I teams with an anemic .226 batting average in 2014, scoring more than three runs only five times in 28 conference games as its postseason drought extended to six years, easily the longest since the Wave’s first regional appearance in 1979.
“We had a very young team,” said shortstop Stephen Alemais, one of six freshmen in the order a year ago. “We had the talent. We just needed to mature, and that’s going to benefit us this year. Now we know what to expect.”
Alemais, catcher Jake Rogers, infielders Jake Willsey, Stephen Alemais, and Hunter Hope and outfielders Lex Kaplan and Grant Brown struggled to varying degrees in their first season, combining to hit .233 in 829 at-bats. All of them figure to play key roles again this spring, getting a second chance to live up to their billing as a top recruiting class.
“Everyone is more relaxed at the plate,” Hope said. “Everyone started pressing last year trying to get the job done instead of going out there and just hitting. We’re older, we’re more mature and we’re going to surprise a lot of people.”
Tulane’s youth last year was unprecedented in former coach Rick Jones’ tenure, but not for Pierce. He said Houston started “five-plus freshmen” in 2001, when it qualified for a regional but lost seven of its last eight games after running out of gas. The Cougars advanced to a super regional the following season.
Rice started five freshman in 2005 and took Tulane to the final game of a Super Regional in New Orleans. The Owls reached the College World Series in 2006.
The Wave obviously is starting from a much lower point.
“Talent is a critical part of that equation,” Pierce said. “But we have some talent, and the maturity from the experience they got last year is going to help us.
“Very few freshmen come in really polished. The toughest adjustment is that first year. You see the difference in kids from their freshman to sophomore year.”
Tulane will not be quite as young on the mound, but another sophomore, Corey Merrill, will start Friday at Pepperdine. The Wave lost its two best pitchers from 2014 — Tyler Mapes and Randy LeBlanc — leaving plenty of uncertainty there, too. Junior Alex Massey is the leading returner in victories, and he went 3-4.
Scratch off sophomore J.P. France, who shut out Arkansas-Pine Bluff in the 2014 season opener before struggling the rest of the way, as a possibility. Pierce said he probably would miss the entire season after re-injuring his elbow in practice earlier this week.
France is one of the few sophomores Tulane will not be riding.
“There’s a reason they were considered one of the top classes last year,” junior outfielder Richard Carthon said. “They didn’t show it, but this year they are putting in a ton of work, and they’re helping each other. Everyone is a lot more positive. I can truly say we’ll be a completely different team.”