When the pairings and host sites for the regional round were announced Monday, intra-state showdowns were commonplace throughout the field. The road to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., will be a well-traveled one for most schools taking part.
LSU earned the right to host its 13th straight NCAA Regional and welcomes three teams to Alex Box Stadium who made the familiar trip to Baton Rouge during the regular season – Southern, Tulane and UL-Lafayette.
LSU stands at 40-19 entering the NCAA tournament following a 2-2 showing at the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Tigers finished fourth in the overall SEC standings and second in the West Division behind Alabama. They ranked No. 10 in the May 27 Baseball America poll and No. 11 according to Collegiate Baseball.
The Tigers played their three regional opponents to a combined 2-3 record during the 2002 season.
Southern (45-8), regular season champs of the Southwestern Athletic Conference, earned an automatic bid to the tournament by winning the SWAC Tournament. The Jaguars, who lost to LSU, 13-2, on April 16, feature one of the nation's top power hitters in Rickie Weeks. After the SWAC Tournament, he held a .500 average with 19 home runs and 94 RBI.
The Tigers fell twice to UL-Lafayette, losing 2-1 at Alex Box on March 12 and 7-0 a week later at Moore Field in Lafayette. The Cajuns (37-21) were an at-large selection and have been involved in an NCAA Regional five out of the last six seasons and nine times in school history. LSU has hosted the Cajuns in six of their regional appearances.
Tulane (35-25) was also an at-large selection after finishing fifth in the Conference USA regular season standings and going 2-2 at the CUSA Tournament. The Green Wave beat LSU, 6-5, in Baton Rouge on March 5, but the Tigers took the rematch, 9-5, in front of a national record 27,673 at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.
LSU head coach Smoke Laval leads the Tigers into an NCAA regional in his first year in charge of the program after leading the UL-Monroe Indians to three post-season berths. As an assistant to Skip Bertman, Laval was part of eight regional teams and two national championship squads at LSU.
Laval does not put much stock into the familiarity his team and fans have with the programs that will take part in the Alex Box Regional. Although the Tigers have a strong track record against in-state competition, Louisiana schools are starting to make up ground on LSU and will present a tough challenge to the Tigers, according to Laval.
"I think it's a tribute to the state and what's happened over the past two or three year," said Laval. "There is great baseball here. A very good Northwestern State baseball team did not get in. There was a possibility of five very talented clubs going to play in a regional tournament."
Northwestern State finished the year with a 43-17 record but failed to earn the automatic bid given to the winner of the Southland Conference Tournament.
2002 NCAA REGIONAL AT ALEX BOX STADIUM
Baton Rouge, La.
Friday, May 31
Game 1 - LSU (40-19) vs. Southern (45-8), 2 p.m.
Game 2 - Tulane (35-25) vs. UL-Lafayette (37-21) 7 p.m.
Saturday, June 1
Game 3 – 11 a.m.
Game 4 – 3 p.m.
Game 5 –7:30 p.m.
Sunday, June 2
Championship Round – 1 p.m.
Laval says his focus won't be on how his team performed against their regional opponents in the regular season since so much time has passed since those game. Instead, he wants his team to focus on improving the aspects of its game under its control
"We played all of them relatively early so some of the lineups and pitching rotations have changed," said Laval.
One could argue strongly that the LSU team has changed as well – for the better. Following their loss to UL-Lafayette, the Tigers dropped two of three at Ole Miss but rebounded to split a rain-shortened series with Mississippi State. LSU then won all but one of its remaining weekend SEC series and beat the rest of its midweek opponents, taking 12 out of its last 14 games heading into the SEC Tournament.