Pontiff remembered by coaches, teammates

Just hours after learning of his death, LSU coaches and baseball players gathered to share their thoughts on the passing of third baseman Wally Pontiff. The 21-year-old team captain was found dead Wednesday morning at his parents' house in Metairie of unknown causes.

All present on the fifth floor of the LSU Athletic Administration Building fought through tears to express their grief over Pontiff's passing. He is survived by Pontiff his father Wally Sr.; his mother, Terry; a younger sister, Haley; and a younger brother, Nicholas.


"I know I speak for many voices," said LSU athletics director Skip Bertman, who recruited Pontiff from Jesuit High School, "…all of the coaches that worked with Wally, the players that are here today, and all of the players that have played with Wally to say to the family, the shock, the horror, the grief that we all feel and our prayers are with Wally, Terry, Nick and Haley. They are a great, great family."


Head coach Smoke Laval wept following his opening remarks to reporters.


"It's a sad day not only for the Pontiffs but for the whole LSU family," said Laval.


Current and former teammates of Pontiff, the last remaining member of the 2000 national championship team still on the squad, were on hand to offer support for Bertman, Laval and each other. After talking to reporters, the players and coaches gathered behind closed doors for a moment of prayer and consolation.


Pitcher Ben Saxon, also a member of the 2000 team, credited Pontiff with providing him guidance on and off the field. Saxon joined the team that season as a junior college transfer and being taken "under the wing" of Pontiff, a true freshman.


"I remember having Wally help me with my trigonometry class," said a shaken Saxon. "There are two things I wouldn't have without Wally Pontiff – a diploma and a national championship ring."


Another upperclassmen on the 2000 team, pitcher Tim Nugent, reflected on Pontiff's impact on his teammates off the field.


"I remember him being the type of person who would do anything for you," said Nugent. "He leaves a legacy for many people to try and following. I don't think anybody will ever be like him."


Outfielder David Raymer shared the dugout with Pontiff the last three seasons and had plans to include him in his December wedding as an usher. According to Raymer, Pontiff was playing in the Cape Cod League, the premier summer wooden bat league for amateurs when he decided to come home to spend time with his family.


The Oakland Athletics had drafted Pontiff with their pick in the 21st round of last month's draft, and Pontiff was still deciding whether to accept the A's contract offer or return to LSU for his senior season.


"There's a reason why he didn't sign," said Raymer. "He could have if he wanted to, but he wanted to go to the Cape Cod League and play. But then all of a sudden he wanted to come home and spend some time with his family. He just wanted to take the rest of the summer off and spend some time with his family.


"I think that's ironic that he wanted to come home. Obviously, somebody else had an agenda. We don't really know what that agenda was, but I'm just glad he got to spend some time with his family, and that we didn't hear about this when he was up in Cape Cod. So we're very fortunate that it happened in New Orleans."


Pontiff came to LSU after earning four letters in baseball at Jesuit High School. As a senior in 1999, he earned Class 5A all-state honors for batting .471 with 12 doubles, one triple, six homers, 30 RBI and 47 runs. He was a .429 career hitter in high school.


Bertman and then-assistant Jim Schwanke recruited Pontiff, and Bertman recalled the impression the Wally and his father left on him.


"When we recruited him in the fall, there was a tremendous rainstorm but he and his dad came up and he was the first recruit that we signed that year," said Bertman. "His dad is former player that I knew when he played while I was at the University of Miami, and his dad is a wonderful role-model."


Pontiff chose the Tigers ahead of Alabama, Miami, Mississippi State, Florida and Tulane and became an immediate contributor as a true freshman. He helped lead the Tigers to the 2000 College World Series, batting .347 with 20 doubles, seven homers and 45 RBI.


Pontiff was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the 2000 SEC Tournament and was named an honorable mention Freshman all-American by Collegiate Baseball magazine. 


As a sophomore, Pontiff hit .347 for the second straight season with nine doubles, seven homers and 58 RBI. He earned first-team all-SEC recognition, and he was voted to the NCAA Baton Rouge Regional all-tournament team. The Tigers reached the NCAA Super Regional round and completed the season ranked No. 9 in the country.


It was Pontiff who was at Bertman's side after the Tigers lost in their Super Regional series with Tulane. He told reporters he was disappointed that he didn't give Bertman a chance to end his career in the College World Series.


"When someone is as talented and popular as Wally, this kind of tragedy affects so many people and it's tough to put it into words," said Bertman. "…He was everybody's All-American."


In 2002, Pontiff and the Tigers advanced to another NCAA Super Regional series. He batted .339 with 20 doubles, six homers and 46 RBI, earning second-team all-SEC honors as the Tigers finished No. 11 in the nation.


Pontiff completed the 2002 season on the LSU career Top 10 lists in three offensive categories -- hits (9th, 254), doubles (tied for 7th, 49) and batting average (10th, .344).


Laval said he had been in regular contact with Pontiff since he returned from the Cape Cod League and knew he had been working out to improve his strength and quickness.


"He was working to play in the big leagues, every single day," said Laval. "I didn't change much coming in here as coach, but one thing I did is we didn't have an appointed captain, but the players all went to him, which is what I wanted.  He would have been the guy and deservingly so. He was a 3.2 pre-med student, an All-American guy."


Dr. Erich Duchmann, a Baton Rouge psychologist under contract with the LSU athletic department, was on hand to help players and coaches deal with their grief. He said what those close to Pontiff will need now is time to share their feelings over his loss.


"Right now everyone has a lot of questions about why this happened and how – the fact-finding still has to take place," said Duchmann. "The most important thing they can do right now is share how they feel about this."


Duchmann added that any LSU fans feeling extraordinary remorse of Pontiff's death should also share their feelings about the tragedy. Given the recent high-profile unsolved murders in the LSU area – some involving LSU students as victims - he said that many people around campus may already be under stress that has worsened with this latest tragedy.

Laval said he expected to the team pay some sort of tribute to Pontiff in the 2003 season. As for any public ceremony or funeral arrangements, details were not available as of Wednesday afternoon.

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