Laval leads Tigers into fall practice

Freshman catcher Jonathan Zeringue is helping teammates tamp down the dirt around home plate less than 30 minutes after he launched a two-run, line drive home run out of Alex Box Stadium in the first intra-squad scrimmage of LSU's fall practice period. It's the typical routine for all of the newcomers on the Tiger roster – groom the infield, pull the tarp and pick up the gear after each day's practice.

It is one minor tradition from the Skip Bertman era at LSU that first-year head coach Ray "Smoke" Laval will carry over. According to the new boss at the Box, there will not be very much different in terms of the brand of baseball Tiger fans will see in the 2002 season.

"If you watched the Alabama teams that (former Bertman assistant Jim) Wells has or my teams at Northeast, we play it the same way," Laval said after Saturday's scrimmage. "I don't think they'll be hardly any difference as far as that goes.

"Lately, (LSU) could have played a little home run ball. We may not have that kind of power, but we have a little more speed than we're used to – but nothing out of the ordinary."

Zeringue's homer was the only ball to clear the fence in Saturday's scrimmage, one which Laval described as a "muscle memory intra-squad" during which the pitchers were encouraged to give hitters a chance to put the ball into play. Left-handed sophomore Lane Mestepey, senior righty David Miller, junior lefty Brad David and freshman left-hander Jason Determann each pitched three innings. Freshman left-hander Chris McDougall pitched both sides of the seventh and final inning and gave up the homer to Zeringue.

"I'm really just fine-tuning my swing right now," said Zeringue, who passed up a chance to play professional baseball after the Chicago White Sox picked him in the third round of June's draft.  "Coach Turtle just threw in a bunch of new stuff. It felt kind of odd at first. But every time I hit, it's feeling better and better. I just got a good pitch to hit, paid attention to my form and hit it a good ways."

Laval said he was encouraged by what he saw in the first workout of the fall practice period in terms of leadership. The newcomers, he says, are apparently benefiting from the experience of the older players who are helping the freshmen and transfers with the expectations that come with being part of the LSU program.

"The junior and senior guys came out and took them under their wings and kinda spoon-fed them," said Laval. "They're all probably a little more prepared and have a better plan than I would have given some of the players credit for, especially the newer ones. The system here (ITAL) is (ITAL) a system. It is planned. It's that pitch-by-pitch, high intensity type baseball, and a lot of our guys seemed to have picked that up. It's a tribute to their high school coaching or wherever they played in the summer."

Fall practice will be crucial for Laval in evaluating the host of pitchers he has on his team. Out of the 45 players listed on the LSU fall roster, 23 are pitchers and nearly half have yet to see action in a college game.

A number of position battles are also expected over the coming weeks, especially in the wake of players like Zeringue and freshman outfielder Jay Mattox electing to pass up pro baseball. In Saturday's scrimmage, as many as three players were used at certain positions and a few have been moved from where they played last year.

Most noticeably, senior Matt Heath has taken up residence in left field after being the Tigers' primary catcher in 2000. Splitting time with him in left was true freshman Dustin Hahn, a 21st round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles.

Senior David Raymer has roots in center field but could see a challenge from Mattox, the Chicago White Sox fourth-round selection who, like Zeringue, chose LSU over a lucrative pro contract.

In right field, senior Sean Barker comes off a strong summer performance with the Santa Barbara Foresters of the Califorina Coastal Collegiate League. He posted the team's highest average (.337) and was named to the CCCL All-League team.

No longer in the outfield mix for LSU is Billy McBride, who along with infielder Victor Brumfield, has chosen to leave the team but continue his studies.

First base is apparently up for grabs between junior Eric Wiethorn and junior college transfer Jason Columbus. Wiethorn hit .313 for the Orange County Scorpions of the NBC Western Semi-Pro League. Zeph Zinsman elected not to return to LSU for his senior season.

Redshirt freshmen Blake Gill and Rocky Scelfo played second base in Saturday's scrimmage. Both players spent their summer with the Front Royal Cardinals of the Shenandoah Valley League. Each is looking to replace Mike Fontenot, who agreed to terms with the Baltimore Orioles, who drafted Fontenot in the first round with the 21st overall pick.

Sophomore Aaron Hill looks like the heir apparent to Ryan Theriot, a draft pick of the Chicago Cubs, at shortstop. True freshman J.C. Holt of Seiper, La., was used at short when Hill's team was at bat.

Junior Wally Pontiff is a secure returning starter at third base; true freshmen Clayton Harris and Randy Roth also saw time at the hot corner.

Zeringue was solid behind the plate but watched as senior Shawn French, who sat out last year with a rotator cuff injury, gunned out to would-be base stealers with relative ease.

Although Laval questions the power on his team, he believes he has one of the more physically impressive teams he's coached. A lot of that size comes from newcomers like Columbus, a 6-foot-5, 230-pounder from New Mexico Junior College, Mattox (6-4, 205) and freshman pitcher Jimmy Campbell (6-5, 225), but returning players like Barker (6-4, 220) and Billy Brian (6-5, 240) also bolster Laval's claim.

"Look around and check the bodies around here," said Laval. "If there's a fight, it's not bad to jump on with the purple and gold. We're very strong physically."

Laval was quick to temper his praise of his players with the realization that they were all eager to come out of the corner swinging on the first day of fall camp. He expects the adrenaline to wear off sometime toward the middle of the week and for some soreness and tiredness to set in.

"Come Wednesday or Thursday, I expect them to be down," said Laval. "Once they get their baseball legs under them next weekend, we'll see again."

No regrets for Zeringue

The Chicago White Sox came through with its best offer for its third-round draft pick, catcher Jonathan Zeringue of E.D. White High School in Thibodaux, but there was evidently no amount of money that was going to keep him from following his heart to Baton Rouge. 

Zeringue was one of four LSU signees who passed on offers from Major League Baseball in order to pla

Tiger Blitz Top Stories