The players had Monday off and after a 1 p.m. team meeting, head coach Smoke Laval lounged in his office in a t-shirt and gym shorts. The mood was much more relaxed than the atmosphere just one day earlier, but the glint of excitement in Laval's eyes and hasty tone in his voice suggested the temperament of the coach and his team.
In the mind of most Tiger fans, it is a welcomed phrase to utter "LSU is heading back to Omaha." After a two-year hiatus in 2001 and '02, Laval has led the Tigers back to the College World Series for the second season. Laval's first trip as the head coach ended quickly after LSU was shown the door after two losses. However, Laval said he and his team have a bit of a different mission when they travel to Rosenblatt Stadium this weekend – for what they hope is a lengthy stay.
"They have been saying all year that there was a little unfinished business up there," Laval said. "They are out to really prove something. I think last year, since no one on the team had been to Omaha, that the thing was to get to Omaha. This year, we have said it from the very beginning, make it to the championship series. We want to be in that championship series in the end – so maybe that's it."
The field of 64 teams was whittled to just 16 teams two weekends ago and finally narrowed to eight after the super regional round last weekend. LSU will join fellow SEC foes Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina along with national powers Cal State Fullerton, Miami, Texas and the surprising Arizona Wildcats. Five of these eight teams, including the Tigers, were among the CWS field one year ago including Miami, Texas, South Carolina and Cal State Fullerton. LSU is matched with the highly-touted Hurricanes in round one. The first pitch is slated for 6:30 Saturday night.
Laval said it was too early to get a gauge on LSU's first opponent, who he will pitch (likely Lane Mestepey), who Miami will pitch and so on.
"The only thing that I know is we play Miami and 6 p.m. on Saturday," Laval said. "As always, we will control what we can control and then go from there later."
As Laval stated in the goals his team set for themselves, the Tigers are not concerned about who they play, just as long as they are still playing.
"This is what it's all about," Laval said. "It is the apex of the college season. Eight teams are left and no matter who they are they can play. Everyone left is still in the hunt. Their names are still being mentioned and we are fortunate that one of those names are LSU. It is going to be fun. Here again, you have to take it up one more notch to get to the next level."
One difference Laval stated is the fact LSU is one of the final eight teams standing even though the Tigers were named tabbed as one of the coveted top national seeds. Laval said he feels LSU proved their worth all year long and against top-notch competition.
"No. 1, I thought we should have been a top eight seed," Laval said. "We should have hosted a super regional anyhow. You are 41-15, I mean, throughout the whole year, with our schedule, yet someone asks just how tough is the conference? You still have Vanderbilt and Florida that could have been there and four clubs are in Omaha. There was a chance for a couple of more, yet alone Tulane, in the final 16 teams that we played during the year. I just don't know what more you have to do to get where you want to go."
One thing is for certain, the SEC can win every debate on the strength of conferences in college baseball. The SEC landed four teams in the College World Series for the first time since 1997 and, as Laval stated above, could have had as many as six there, something Laval added the NCAA will probably try and avoid in the future.
"They would make sure that it didn't happen again," Laval said about the NCAA. "They would match us up in a super regional like they did before. They want the best teams up there, but they kind of frown down on that when one league looks like it is really dominating out there."
Focusing on the Tigers first round opponent, LSU will have its hands full with the Miami Hurricanes.
The Canes are one of the four remaining national seeds (Texas, South Carolina, Arkansas) and possess possibly the CWS's top hurlers in Cesar Carrillo. With an 11-0 record and a 2.78 ERA, the Tigers will have to be on the ball as Carrillo will likely be the starter for the duel with the Tigers.
"You just try and control what you can and we have done a good job of doing that real well and it worked out for us," Laval said. "So now we just get it together and go."
With the way LSU has been playing lately, all phases of the Tigers game have come together. LSU has received a masterful array of pitching performances in regional action, including a pair of complete game shutouts by Justin Meier and Lane Mestepey. The Tigers are seeing the ball at the plate as well as they have this season and have cut down on the errors considerably. Laval has said LSU is playing its best ball as of late and if these Tigers are on top of their game, they are as good as anybody in the country.
"If we are clicking on all cylinders, I think we would be very difficult to beat," Laval said. "The thing is, how many times do you do that and can you do it at the right time? In the meantime, you have to get seven of your nine guys right and two of the four pitchers right for five or six days if you are fortunate enough to stay there for that long. But if we hit like we did in game one (vs. Texas A&M) and Mestepey pitches like he did on Sunday, then things would be very good. But that doesn't happen a whole lot."
But the most important factor is the majority of the team has had College World Series experience – which is vital at this time of year.
"It won't be real new to our kids – not only Rosenblatt, we've been there now – but the surroundings and the kids we've played against," Laval said.
Location: Fayetteville, Ark.
Record (Conf./Finish): 45-22 (19-11 SEC, T1st)
Head coach: Dave Van Horn,
Assistant coaches: Matt Deggs, Dave Jorn
Team Batting Avg.: .294
Team ERA: 3.78
The skinny: After claiming a share of the SEC Championship with Georgia, the Razorbacks fought their way out of the loser's bracket of the sub-regional after a 4-3 loss to Witchita St. The Hogs defeated the Shockers twice in the championship round for the right to host Florida State in the super regional. Arkansas beat FSU 7-5 and 4-2 to advance to the CWS.
Location: Tucson, Ariz.
Record (Conf./Finish): 35-25-1 (12-12/3rd)
Head coach: Andy Lopez
Assistant Coaches: Steve Kling, Mark Wasikowski
Team Batting Avg.: .304
Team ERA: 5.21
The skinny: The Cinderella squad in the College World Series, Arizona, which finished with a 12-12 mark in the Pac-10, makes its first trip to Omaha in 18 years. The Wildcats haven't been to the CWS since 1986. Arizona went unbeaten through the South Bend Sub-Regional disposing of host Notre Dame 7-6 in the title matchup. In an uncanny situation, the Wildcats bid for a super regional but not a sub-regional and was awarded the host site. UA took the super regional in three games beating Long Beach State, who upset national seed Stanford, 4-3 in an 11-inning thriller.
Cal State Fullerton Titans
Location: Fullerton, Calif.
Conference: Big West
Record (Conf./Finish): 42-21 (19-2/1st)
Head coach: George Horton
Assistant Coaches: Dave Serrano, Rick Vanderhook, Chad Baum
Team Batting Avg.: .333
Team ERA: 3.85
The skinny: A mainstay at the College World Series, Cal State Fullerton returns to Omaha after a dominating run to a 19-2 conference mark and the Big West title. Pepperdine did its level best to snub the Titans another trip to the CWS, but CSF fought its way out of the loser's bracket defeating Pepperdine twice in the sub-regional finals before handling the Tulane Green Wave in two games in the super regional round.
Location: Athens, Ga.
Record (Conf./Finish): 43-21 (19-11/T1st)
Head coach: Dave Perno
Assistant Coaches: Butch Thompson, Don Norris, Jason Eller
Team Batting Avg.: .300
Team ERA: 4.18
The skinny: One of the great stories in college baseball in 2004, Dave Perno led the Georgia Bulldogs from the cellar in the SEC east in 2003 to the College World Series one year later. The Bulldogs, which shared the SEC crown with Arkansas, just slipped past Clemson losing the first game on championship Sunday of the sub-regional 10-9 only to advance with a 7-6 decision. In-state rival Georgia Tech was little match for the Bulldogs as UGA disposed of the Yellow Jackets 7-5 and 5-3 moving on to the CWS.
Location: Baton Rouge, La.
Record (Conf./Finish): 46-17 (18-12/3rd)
Head coach: Smoke Laval
Assistant Coaches: Turtle Thomas, Brady Wiederhold, Jody Autrey
Team Batting Avg.: .333
Team ERA: 3.51
The skinny: Preparing for the school's 13th trip to the College World Series, Smoke Laval and Co. are in search of LSU's 6th national title. Ousted early in the CWS in 2003, the Tigers seem to be on a mission this year rolling through the regional rounds unscathed. In the sub-regional, LSU trounced Army, Southern Miss and College of Charleston before sweeping a pair of wins over Texas A&M in the super regional.
Location: Miami, Fla.
Conference: NCAA Division I/Independent
Record (Conf./Finish): 50-11
Head coach: Jim Morris
Assistant Coaches: Gino DiMare, J.D. Arteaga, Greg Lovelady
Team Batting Avg.: .329
Team ERA: 3.59
The skinny: Some may argue Miami doesn't play in a conference, but the Hurricanes have played the toughest competition in the country facing the likes of Florida State, Virginia, Georgia Tech, Florida, Minnesota, Coastal Carolina, Long Beach State and Tennessee. Heck, these guys lost to the defending world champion Florida Marlins 7-6. Anyway, these Hurricanes will go toe-to-toe with LSU in round one of the CWS in a rematch of the 1996 national championship game.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Location: Columbia, S.C.
Record (Conf./Finish): 50-15 (17-13/4th)
Head coach: Ray Tanner
Assistant Coaches: Jerry Meyers, Jim Toman, Monte Lee
Team Batting Avg.: .296
Team ERA: 3.31
The skinny: The South Carolina Gamecocks are ending the season like they began it – with a lengthy win streak. The Gamecocks opened the 2003 season with a 12-0 run before losing two of three to LSU in the SEC's opening weekend. USC lost just 15 games all year, 13 of which came in league play. The other two losses were at the hands of rival Clemson – twice. But South Carolina has been on a tear throughout the postseason, having won 10 in a row including the SEC Tourney title and sweeps of North and East Carolina in the sub and super regional rounds respectively.
Location: Austin, Texas
Conference: Big 12
Record (Conf./Finish): 55-13 (19-7/1st)
Head coach: Augie Garrido
Assistant Coaches: Tommy Harmon, Tom Holliday, Dennis Cook
Team Batting Avg.: .288
Team ERA: 2.58
The skinny: How much does Texas have left in the tank? The Longhorns have been rolling through the postseason. Despite a loss to Oklahoma State in the Big 12 Tournamant finals, the Horns ripped through the regional rounds with ease and appear to be getter hotter by the game after UT embarrassed one of the nation's top pitching staffs in a two-game romp of Vanderbilt in the super regional. Coach Augie Garrido's team is the nation's top seed and are no doubt playing like it.