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From left, LSU freshman Dylan Crews (3), LSU head coach Paul Mainieri and LSU assistant coach Nolan Cain discuss gloves on the field, Friday, January 29, 2021, at Alex Box Stadium on the campus of LSU in Baton Rouge, La.

Once the coronavirus pandemic ended college baseball last spring and LSU began planning its 2021 roster, recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain consistently told coach Paul Mainieri the team had a chance to land some of its highest-rated signees.

The pandemic thrust the sport into unknowns about everything from roster sizes to the length of the major league baseball draft. Amidst the uncertainty, Cain believed LSU could keep outfielder Dylan Crews, pitcher Blake Money, infielder Jordan Thompson, pitcher Ty Floyd, outfielder Brody Drost and even catcher Drew Romo, all players who would likely sign in a typical cycle.

“After a while,” Mainieri said, “I'd look at him and say, 'Come on, Nolan. You're young, and I know you're ambitious, but you've got to come to grips with this isn't the way it works.’” 

Cain was correct. Crews withdrew his name from consideration a week before the draft, and with the format shortened from 40 to five rounds, LSU held onto almost all its signees, only losing Romo and junior college pitcher Beck Way. 

“We felt pretty good with it,” Cain said. “There were a lot of high fives and smiles.”

Nine months later, the members of that recruiting class have filled LSU’s bullpen and starting lineup. Entering the Tigers’ series this weekend against Oral Roberts, freshmen lead the team in batting average and home runs, providing the catalyst for an offense that leads the country with 21 homers. Freshmen have hit 11 of them.

Amongst players with at least 15 at-bats, three freshmen sit atop LSU’s statistical leaderboard for batting average: Crews (.457), Drost (.444) and first baseman Tre’ Morgan (.364).

Crews also leads the team in home runs (five), OPS (1.539), doubles (three) and ranks second in walks with eight. Drost, who recently entered the starting lineup, has two home runs. Morgan ranks second in hits (12) and leads the team in steals with four. He has at least one hit in all but one game this season.

"Coach Mainieri said he wasn't afraid to put four or five freshmen in the starting lineup because he knows these freshmen very special and aren't scared to perform at all," Crews said. "It should be fun this year and the years ahead."

The production extends throughout the class. Thompson, who’s 4 for 25, has three home runs. Pitcher Will Hellmers has allowed one run in nine innings. Right-hander Garrett Edwards and left-hander Javen Coleman both started midweek games. Money threw 4 ⅓ scoreless innings in relief Wednesday. Floyd completed back-to-back scoreless outings after a disastrous first appearance.

Even two junior college transfers, left-hander Alex Brady and catcher Jake Wyeth, technically members of the recruiting class, have contributed. Brady has allowed two runs over three appearances. Wyeth’s batting .364 with two doubles as the backup catcher. 

“I've known these kids so long,” said Cain, who also serves as the third base coach. “I've known these families so long. When they hit their first homer and they're coming around the bases, I almost want to hug them.”

For Cain, a former LSU pitcher who spent time as a volunteer coach and coordinator of operations before becoming the recruiting coordinator, the current freshman class was the first one he oversaw from start to finish. His previous classes already had a few players committed. He consistently finished them in the top 5 of national rankings.

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When Cain received his promotion in November 2016, college recruiting sat in a dead period, preventing him visiting prospects in person. He said he tried to build a network by calling "anybody and everybody that wanted to talk to me."

One day, Cain received a phone call from Matthew Gerber, the general manager of a summer travel baseball team in Orlando, Florida. He told Cain about a freshman named Dylan Crews.

“This is the best player I've ever had,” Cain recalled Gerber saying.

At the time, Cain said NCAA rules allowed unofficial visits before high schoolers entered their junior years. Crews visited LSU his freshman year, becoming the first player Cain hosted for an unofficial visit as recruiting coordinator. Crews committed later that summer.

Cain continued to build the class, scouting Money, Floyd and 6 others from across the country while securing in-state pledges like Morgan and Drost. Late-bloomers, such as Hellmers and Edwards, joined the class the summer before their senior year.

The class appeared talented, but in college baseball, the nerves around non-binding, verbal commitments don’t end once players sign their national letters of intent. Coaches must wait through the annual draft as professional franchises offer hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of dollars in potential signing bonuses.

“You don't really feel good about it until after the draft,” Cain said. “That's everything for us.”

Cain monitored the 2020 draft from LSU’s facility. He knew LSU would retain some of its recruits because teams wouldn’t manipulate signing bonuses to offer more than slot value in a five-round draft, but he wondered how many would arrive on campus. He worried about Drost, Floyd, Money and Thompson. He said Floyd received “a lot of phone calls in the fourth and fifth round.”

By the end of the draft, LSU held onto almost every major player in a recruiting class Baseball America later ranked No. 2 in the country. They've already cracked the lineup and displayed their potential, exciting Mainieri about what they can accomplish over the next three years. He feels fortunate they came to school.

"Not only are they very talented players," Mainieri said, "but their attitudes are tremendous. There's not an ounce of prima donna in any of them. They have great work ethic."

For Cain, work didn't stop once the class arrived on campus. He enjoys watching the freshmen he recruited for so many years, but he must continue to identify future prospects and try to retain another recruiting class through the draft.

"It's crazy," Cain said. "I'm now collecting 2025 names to see this summer."

Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com