Green Wave adapts to second baseman Jake Willsey’s suspension _lowres

Advocate staff photo by SCOTT THRELKELD -- Tulane infielder Jake Willsey (17) makes a catch in shallow right field in the third inning Saturday, May 17, 2014 at Turchin Stadium. Tulane won 2-1.

Stephen Alemais is ready to put 2014 firmly in the past.

Tulane’s sophomore shortstop said Friday presents the perfect opportunity to do so, as the Green Wave baseball team officially opens practice, starting the 2015 season. It won’t be difficult to leave the past behind, considering nearly everything surrounding the Green Wave baseball program is new.

First-year head coach David Pierce enters, following three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances at Sam Houston State, to lead Tulane into its first season as members of the American Athletic Conference, allowing a clean break from one of the most tumultuous years in the program’s recent history.

It was a season that started without functioning lights in Turchin Stadium, was troubled by coach Rick Jones’ midseason health problems that forced him to step down and ended in a 23-29 record and Jones’ retirement, officially ending the most successful era in the history of any Green Wave program in the modern era. It was Tulane’s first losing season since 1993 — the year before Jones’ arrival — and marked a clear line of demarcation for Alemais and the rest of Tulane’s roster.

It’s the difference between being a newcomer and a veteran. After starting six freshmen on opening day last year, the Green Wave will have a far shorter adjustment curve this time around.

Nearly every expectant 2015 starter played college baseball a year ago and that experience, on its own, should help ease the transition for Pierce and the Green Wave when it opens the season against Pepperdine in Malibu, California on Feb. 13.

“I think we are hungrier now because we thought we were going to be more successful than we were and we failed ourselves last year,” Alemais said. “I think we have a better idea, at least for me, of knowing what we have to lose and what it takes to win. I think last year, I lacked the maturity sometimes to truly recognize that.

“I think we use last year as motivation. We are over it, but it’s a good lesson to learn and see where we were last year as a team and realize where we have to mature. It’s a new year and new conference, so it’s time to move on.”

And Pierce said that starts with instituting his process from the first day of preseason practice and taking that approach into the summer. He went out of his way to compliment the players’ reception to him and his coaching staff, noting there are often bumps that occur following personnel changes.

It’s part of a maturity he sees throughout the roster.

“A lot of people easily criticize some of our play and at bats and stuff from last year, but when all of those freshmen are playing at the same time, it’s tough,” Pierce said. “The beauty that we are inheriting is that they’re still young and aggressive but they have experience. It’s a big difference from coaching freshmen to sophomores.”

Starting pitcher Alex Massey said he’s already noted an uptick of liveliness in the clubhouse, attributing it to a more familiar roster and the natural rejuvenation sparked by new leadership.

While position battles in the outfield, at first base and in the starting rotation will unfold in the next several weeks, Massey said he believes the foundation is in place for the Green Wave to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.

“We just have a bunch of energy that’s been brought this year and this staff has been with us every step of the way,” Massey said. “On the field, in the weight room and in the classroom, the energy around the program has been really great and has made a big difference to us as we get started.

“It’s up to us to keep it there and bring it through the whole season, but we are ready to get started.”