Southeastern Conference baseball coaches spent months debating options for the 2021 schedule. They thought about only playing conference teams, making weekend series four games and facing fewer non-conference opponents.
Eventually, the coaches decided to maintain the league’s typical format, voting Thursday to play 10 conference series with three games per weekend, plus 26 non-conference games, as first reported by Baseball America. The plan heads to SEC athletic directors for approval.
“It's their decision what would need to be best,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said, “but the baseball coaches were pretty unified in saying that we would like to keep the schedule as is."
The coaches also asked athletic directors to expand roster sizes from 27 to 30 players for road trips and conference games to account for the possibility players might miss time because of positive coronavirus tests or contact tracing, Mainieri said. He added the measure would give teams enough players to compete at their proper positions in the event of quarantines.
Tommy Lasorda served as a mentor and role model for LSU baseball coach Paul Mainieri. They talked about everything from coaching to how to treat people, their relationship stretching far beyond the game they shared.
“It also, with the expanded rosters this year, would keep more kids involved and feel like there's hope for them to contribute to the program,” Mainieri said. “It's a little bit of an added expense, three extra players, but I think the tradeoff is certainly worth it.”
The coaches considered other options because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has changed schedules across sports since March. Early last week, Mainieri said on WNXX-FM, 104.5 there was “a possibility” the SEC would play four-game series and 16 non-conference games. They also evaluated playing a conference-only schedule as in football.
However, the league’s coaches want to hold onto the typical baseball schedule as long as possible, and other conferences indicated their teams will play non-conference games at each school’s discretion.
According to D1Baseball.com, the Western Athletic Conference, Conference USA and the Southland Conference will allow nonconference games. All three leagues will play four-game weekend series within their conference.
Honors continue to arrive for LSU pitcher Jaden Hill.
For nonconference teams to play the SEC this season, they must meet the league’s coronavirus testing protocols. Mainieri said last week on WNXX-FM the SEC will mandate teams take PCR tests 72 hours before first pitch or a rapid antigen test the day before the game, but the SEC hasn’t released its requirements for spring sports.
“The feedback I've gotten from virtually every school on our schedule is they're willing to abide by it,” Mainieri said. “They were already doing that level of testing.”
LSU’s players return to campus Sunday and will receive a coronavirus test. If every player tests negative, the team will begin individual workouts Monday. Practice starts Jan. 29, three weeks before LSU plays Notre Dame, Army and Air Force opening weekend.
“We're still slightly unsure whether or not Army's going to be able to make the trip because of their institutional policies,” Mainieri said, “but we're working on it and hoping it's going to be able to happen.”
LSU landed at No. 7 in Collegiate Baseball Newspaper's preseason poll.
The rest of LSU’s schedule will be finalized later this month, after the athletic directors approve a season plan.
The SEC knows it may have to pivot to a format with four-game weekend series, depending on the pandemic and decisions made by other conferences, but for now the league coaches want to hold onto the status quo.
“I'm just happy to know the coaches have become unified at least in what we want to do,” Mainieri said. “We talked about so many possibilities over the course of the last couple months. I felt like we kept talking in circles, but ultimately, we came up with what we thought was best. Hopefully the athletic directors will agree with us.”