The tipping point of the LSU-ULL rivalry

Let's revisit the 2002 Regional between LSU and Louisiana-Lafayette, a series that featured ejections and plenty of bad blood as the rivalry was taken to a new level.

A home run trot. A belt-high fastball. A swinging strike.

Those three things combined to take the rivalry between LSU and Louisiana-Lafayette to another level. It adds another chapter this weekend when the two teams meet for the first time in a Super Regional.

But it was 13 years ago when things almost got out of hand.

When Matt Heath celebrated a home run a little too excessively. When Donnie Bair’s fastball found Heath’s hip. And when Aaron Hill’s bat somehow landed in the Cajuns’ dugout.

That’s what sent the rivalry to its tipping point.

“It’s just all in the competitive nature of the game.”

Smoke Laval said that more than a decade later, recalling the infamous 2002 Regional between LSU and ULL. Laval was then in his first year as the LSU coach, replacing a legend in Skip Bertman that had won the Tigers five national championships.

But Laval inherited a lot of talent. He took over a title contender, one that entered the NCAA Tournament a regional host for the 14th time in program history.

“Smoke went in there with high expectations to go to Omaha and win a national championship. But that’s the goal every year at LSU,” said Matt Heath, who’d start 64 games for Laval that year.

LSU hosted an all-Louisiana regional in 2002 — Southern the No. 4 seed, Tulane No. 3 and ULL No. 2.

Even though ULL deserved its place, most in Baton Rouge still considered the Cajuns to be LSU’s little brother. Tony Robichaux — in his eighth season as the ULL coach — had taken them to five regionals and a College World Series appearance in 2000, but that still left a steep divide between the two fan bases.

Robichaux did at least have LSU’s respect, because they appreciated the way ULL played ball.

“They didn’t always have the best talent,” Laval said. “But when they did have talent, they were super duper tough to beat. And even when they didn’t have talent, they were still tough to beat.”

The Cajuns proved that twice during the regular season. They stunned Alex Box Stadium when Justin Gabriel outdueled Jake Tompkins and Lane Mestepey for a 2-1 victory. ULL kept it rolling a week later as Andy Gros tossed a complete game shutout in Lafayette.

“Their fans were outstanding.” Heath said. “They were drinking pretty hard, and they were all over us. It was one of the worst cussings I’ve ever gotten.”

That didn’t mean a thing once the tournament started though.

Each team kicked off the 2002 regional with a win — ULL beating Tulane 6-3 and LSU edging Southern by a run. That set up a meeting between the two in the winners’ bracket.

But ULL proved the regular season was no fluke.

Lane Mestepey was the Freshman of the Year in 2001, but he lost to ULL both times he played them in 2002 (Photo Courtesy: LSU)

LSU faced Gros again and struggled just as mightily. He threw another complete game shutout, beating Mestepey (who also threw a complete game) to move into the driver’s seat of the Baton Rouge regional.

“They got us in that first game,” Heath said. “But with Smoke and the way he coached, we knew we weren’t out of it. We just kept battling, and once we got through that, it was like we threw it into another gear.”

LSU beat Tulane 4-2 to stay alive and set up a rematch with the Cajuns. LSU would have to win twice in one day to advance to the Super Regional.

“They were talking a lot of trash in the cages before that game,” Heath said. “It put a little spur in our saddle, because we came out pretty strong after that.”

That they did. LSU took a 3-0 lead in the first inning behind home runs by Aaron Hill and Sean Barker. They were up 5-1 by the sixth, and the Alex Box crowd started to play its part.

“The old Alex Box was so loud,” Heath said. “Any time you got up on a team, it just got louder and more intense. That place would beat opponents down. Once we got up and the crowd got more energized, they tightened up.”

LSU took advantage of the Cajuns’ nerves. Heath finished them off with a two-run homer to deep center field in the seventh.

“That put the nail in the coffin,” he said. “I knew they weren’t coming back after I hit that home run. It slammed the door.”

Heath celebrated as he rounded the bases. He pumped his fists and pointed out fans in the stands.

ULL’s third baseman didn’t share Heath’s excitement though. He interpreted it as a taunt and let Heath know he didn’t appreciate it. So too did the ULL dugout, and Heath didn’t help matters when he glared the Cajuns’ way as he approached home plate.

The ULL players were on the field by the time he crossed the dish. LSU responded in kind, and the situation was on the verge of becoming much messier. The umpires calmed it down, issuing a warning to both clubs that any further escalation would result in ejections.

That didn’t prevent the Cajuns from getting even though.

Heath returned to the plate in the ninth, his first at-bat since the homer. ULL pitcher Donnie Bair delivered a fastball straight into his hip. It actually hit his belt, so Heath felt no pain.

But the message was clear.

Bair got ejected for it. So too did Robichaux. Neither could return for the next game as a result. (Robichaux declined to discuss the 2002 regional when reached for comment.)

“I figured they may throw at me,” Heath said. “I thought it was over. We’d had our back-and-forth. That’s just good baseball with competitive teams, and that should’ve been it.”

But it wasn’t.

Aaron Hill came to bat later in that ninth inning. He remembers it being a typical June day in Baton Rouge, hot and humid as can be. He’d actually requested a new set of batting gloves from the equipment manager because of the sweat, but he didn’t make it back in time for Hill’s at-bat.

Hill dug in anyway and took a “healthy hack” at the first pitch he liked. He lost his bat though, and it went flying straight for the ULL dugout.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god! Don’t hit anybody.’”

Nobody was harmed, but ULL didn’t take it as an innocent accident. They thought it was intentional, and they wanted Hill’s head to roll. The umpire again had to restore order, and he ejected Hill for the incident.

“To this day, people still swear I did it on purpose,” Hill said. “I don’t think I could do it if I tried.”

LSU had already sealed a 12-2 victory by that point. It kept the Tigers’ season alive and forced a winner-take-all matchup with ULL a couple hours later.

LSU would have to do it without Hill, the future SEC Player of the Year and first-round draft pick. He remembers having to spend that game in a trailer down the right field line accompanied by a pair of police officers. He at one point asked to use the bathroom, but really just sneaked into the stands to watch the game with friends.

“The officers had to come find me and take me back,” Hill said.

Brian Wilson threw a complete game against ULL to send LSU to the Super Regional (Photo Courtesy: LSU)

LSU didn’t need Hill to win that second game. The Tigers cruised to another 12-2 victory behind a dominant day on the mound from Brian Wilson. That sent LSU to the Super Regional, where their season would end. LSU got shut out in both games against No. 4 national seed Rice in Houston.

But that didn’t spoil what they accomplished the week prior.

“We expected to come back,” said Heath, whose home run ignited the fire between LSU and ULL. “We never hit the panic button. It was a good group of guys on that team. We were tough, and we weren’t going to lose in our home.”

The tension and bad blood between LSU and ULL persisted past that 2002 regional. The two teams refused to play each other for the next six years.

“We were told not to play them after that,” said Laval, who served as LSU’s coach through the 2006 season. “We were just told it would be in the best interest.”

That is until Paul Mainieri took over the program. He extended an olive branch to Robichaux, offering to bury the hatchet between the two schools and restore one of the state’s most storied baseball rivalries.

“He jumped at the opportunity, and it’s been good for both teams,” Mainieri said. “We like each other. Why wouldn’t we want to play?”

Now peace has overtaken this once tense rivalry. LSU and ULL have played at least once a year since 2008, including a meeting in the 2013 Baton Rouge regional. The two teams faced each other in this year’s Wally Pontiff Classic and it had the highest attendance of any game in that event’s history.

That’s sure to be surpassed this weekend.

“They tried not to play for so long, and here we are a few years later, and not only are they playing, but they’re playing for a chance to go to Omaha,” Heath said. “That’s the way it should be.”

Aaron Hill, Matt Heath, Smoke Laval and most of the college baseball world will be watching when LSU and ULL battle on the field this weekend.

Hill won’t just be rooting for an LSU win though.

“Hopefully no bats go flying.”

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