For most of the LSU baseball players, the NCAA Tournament is a bit of a foreign concept. Same applies for the idea of playing a home regional, a scenario the Tigers have excelled in through the years.
So amid the excitement Monday of the announcement that LSU is hosting not only a regional but is in line for a Super Regional, there was also a palpable sense of ‘what now?’
That wasn’t the case for a handful of veterans, though, and especially not for the one senior Tiger who literally grew up spending part of June at Alex Box Stadium when the NCAA Tournament arrived.
Austin Nola has been as ingrained in the fabric of LSU baseball for as long as he can remember – the last four years as the Tigers’ starting shortstop. He has experienced plenty of highs, including playing for a national championship team in 2009.
And Nola has been around for some lows as well, none lower than last season when LSU’s name never popped up on the screen when the 2011 NCAA field was unveiled.
For Nola and any of the Tigers who were around last season, the swing in emotions from last May to Monday was almost immeasurable.
“It’s completely different,” said Nola, who takes a .308 average into the NCAA Tournament. He leads the Tigers with 39 walks, is tied for first with 15 doubles, second with 44 runs scored and is fourth with 38 RBIs.
“Last year, we were at the lowest of lows feeling like we deserved to be in a tournament. Now this year we’re at the highest of highs and getting a national seed. That was the talk, but it doesn’t guarantee you anything as a national seed. In this tournament there are 64 good teams. It’s going to be a tough road, but this team is ready and we’re looking forward to Friday night.”
That’s when the No. 1 seed Tigers (43-16) tangle with fourth-seeded UL-Monroe (31-28) at 7 p.m. in the second game of the regional. Oregon State (38-18) and Belmont (39-22) begin the day at 2 p.m.
Knowing exactly what lies ahead gives Nola and his teammates a more concrete and obvious goal to aim at as well.
|Austin Nola: 'We've got a plan and we know how to execute. We just have to get the job done.'|
Last week at the SEC Tournament, the Tigers had little to gain or lose. They won the outright SEC crown the weekend before by taking two of three games at South Carolina, which from all indications, sewed up the national seed.
Everything is much more black-and-white starting this weekend.
Win and keep playing. Lost twice and the door slams shut on a memorable season.
“Last weekend there were so many uncertainties,” Nola said. “We were trying to play for different things, and we didn’t know what was going to happen when it came to committee selections. This weekend, we know what’s in front of us. We’ve got a plan and we know how to execute. We just have to get the job done.
“At this time of year, it comes down to who plays the best at the right time and in the big situations, and that’s what we’re going to have to do.”
There are variables in LSU’s regional opener that could be advantages if the Tigers manage to rely on recent history.
For one thing, LSU tangles with in-state opponents several times a season, and this year was no exception. The Tigers were 11-0 against their in-state brethren, which anchored a 14-0 mid-week record.
The relevance? LSU is acutely aware how big a feather it can be in a state foes’ cap to knock the Tigers off.
“All the games we play here against Louisiana teams are some of the best games we play,” Nola said. “Every team comes in with a chip on their shoulder and wants to give us their best game.”
A former Class 2A Player of the Year at Calvary Baptist in Shreveport, Zeigler spent his freshman season at LSU. He appeared in three games and threw three innings, but his campaign ended abruptly when his elbow blew up and he needed Tommy John surgery.
Knowing he was out for most of the 2010 season, Zeigler asked Tigers coach Paul Mainieri about staying on the team as a position player – he batted .530 with 13 home runs as a senior at Calvary, .445 with 11 bomb and 77 RBIs as a junior. But Mainieri wanted Zeigler to remain a pitcher.
So Zeigler asked for a release and transferred to Bossier Parish Community College and then wound up at ULM last season. He was 5-5 last spring with 69 strikeouts and a 5.04 ERA and has gone 5-6 this season with 108 Ks and a 3.65 ERA in 106 innings.
|Randy Zeigler: Former Tiger will likely get a shot at derailing his LSU in the opening round|
Nola was in the same recruiting class as Zeigler and got to know him well, despite the pitcher’s abbreviated stay.
“He was a competitor and had really good stuff on the mound,” Nola said. “He’s a good left-handed arm. Coming out of high school he was one of the best left-handers pitchers in the state.”
Added Mason Katz, “He’s going to come here with some fire.”
Not that there will be a shortage of emotion from the Tigers.
A year away from the NCAA Tournament was fuel for LSU’s fire all season. Now the task is to manage those emotions in front of what is expected to be a raucous sold-out crowd at the Box.
When he was growing up in Baton Rouge, Nola was in that crowd as much as any current player and knows there will be some nerves to wrestle.
“There will definitely be some butterflies,” Nola said with a smile. “I always get butterflies. But hosting a regional on a Friday night, it’s going to be awesome. I think butterflies bring the best out in us. In those big games, we tend to play better.”
Better will be needed. Best might be desirable considering the Tigers have a chance to stay home for a Super Regional if they handle business this week.
“Being a national seed doesn’t mean anything unless you go out and keep working hard,” Nola said. “It’s a reward but we can’t look ahead. We have a great team in ULM coming in here.”
Nola, Dozar earn team awards
Nola and fellow senior Grant Dozar were bestowed the two postseason team awards Monday that Mainieri hands out each season.
Dozar received the Skip Bertman Award, which recognizes “the player who best exemplifies the spirit of the LSU baseball program.”
A starter on and off the last three seasons, Dozar has carved a niche as the Tigers’ left-handed designated hitter this season. He played a key role in LSUs 4-3 13-inning triumph at Ole Miss, tying the game with a solo home run in the eighth inning and the game-winning single in the 13th.
There have been a scrapbook full of big moments for Nola in his career, plenty in his senior season.
But it’s Nola’s off-the-field performance and personality that led to him earning the Wally Pontiff Jr. Scholar Athlete Award.
Named for the former LSU third baseman who died from a heart abnormality in 2002, the Pontiff award is given to a player who typifies the team concept and how hard work pays off.
“It’s an honor to even be mentioned in the same sentence with Wally,” Nola said.
Season ticket holders can grab regional tickets until 5 p.m. Tuesday, with the booklets good for all seven games going for $50, $75 and $100. Season ticket holders who have already submitted requests in advance will be charged automatically.
For fans who chose the mail option, the tickets will be shipped Tuesday. Fans who chose the call-in option, tickets are available for pickup now.
Any tickets not purchased by 5 p.m. Tuesday will go on sale to the general public at 8 a.m. Thursday and individual-game tickets go up for sale on Friday morning.
The Alex Box Stadium ticket office is open from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. For more information go to www.LSUtix.net or call (225) 578-2184.
At Alex Box Stadium
Game 1: 2 p.m. – (3) Belmont (39-22) vs. (2) Oregon State (38-18)
Game 2: 7 p.m. – (1) LSU (43-16) vs. (4) UL-Monroe (31-28)
Game 3: 2 p.m. – Belmont-Oregon State loser vs. LSU-ULM loser
Game 4: 7 p.m. – Belmont-Oregon State winner vs. LSU-ULM winner
Game 5: 1:30 p.m. – Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser
Game 6: 6:30 p.m. – Game 5 winner vs. Game 4 winner
Game 7: 6:30 p.m. – Game 5 winner vs. Game 4 winner, if necessary