The LSU baseball team watched the television screen intently as the eight national seeds to the NCAA tournament were revealed Monday morning.
Tigers coach Paul Mainieri said he had had “a couple of sleepless nights” since his team was ousted from the Southeastern Conference tournament Friday after losing for the second time in three games.
Shortstop Austin Nola, on the other hand, said he “didn’t lose any sleep over it.” He said he believed the Tigers (43-16 and SEC regular-season champions) “did everything we could on the field,” though the final decision was out of their hands.
The top six national seeds were handed out, and LSU still hadn’t been mentioned.
“I figured it was only typical,” Mainieri said. “Let’s take it to the ninth inning before we find out if we get the national seed. I was a little bit nervous, but I wasn’t surprised by any of the first six. I wasn’t panicking, because I felt that all six of those teams deserved it.”
Finally, the Tigers too were deemed to be deserving, being awarded the No. 7 seed nationally a day after they learned they would host a regional. So LSU will continue playing at Alex Box Stadium until either someone eliminates it or the Tigers advance to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., next month.
Despite the brief last-minute anxiety, the mood was far less tense than last season, when the Tigers were left out of the NCAA field.
“It’s completely different,” Nola said. “Last year, we were at the lowest of lows, feeling like we deserved to be in the tournament. Now, this year, we are at the highest of highs and getting a national seed.”
Last year, the 36-20 Tigers sat in disbelief in their team meeting room as 64 other teams celebrated NCAA bids.
“Last year, the last memory I have is kicking the chair when I walked out of the room, so it was a little bit better than that,” first baseman/outfielder Mason Katz understated. “Waiting to see if you’re a national seed is a little better than waiting to see if you make the tournament at all.
“I had a good feeling about the national seed. It was exciting. Everybody let out a little sigh of relief. Now, we get to see how it plays out.”
It starts playing out for LSU at 7 p.m. Friday when the top-seeded Tigers meet fourth-seeded Louisiana-Monroe. The double-elimination regional begins five hours earlier when second-seeded Oregon State faces third-seeded Belmont.
The winner of the Baton Rouge Regional will play the winner of the Coral Gables (Fla.) Regional in a best two-out-of-three super regional next weekend. That regional features top-seeded Miami, second-seeded Central Florida, third-seeded Missouri State and fourth-seeded Stony Brook.
“We can look ahead all we want,” Katz said. “But if we don’t get our job done, we’re going to be watching the super regional somewhere else besides Baton Rouge. We don’t want to do that. We want to go out and win Friday night and put ourselves in a good position to keep moving forward.”
The Warhawks from Monroe won the Sun Belt Conference tournament title and automatic bid with a 4-2 victory against Arkansas State on Sunday.
This will be LSU’s third regional at the Box in Mainieri’s sixth season, and first since 2009, when LSU won the CWS.
“Clearly, (the Warhawks) are the very best four seed that we will have faced,” Mainieri said. “I don’t mean that in any way disrespectful to (previous four seeds) Southern or Texas Southern.
“Louisiana-Monroe, the Sun Belt Conference champion, they’re a legitimately qualified team that is capable of beating anybody in our field. So, the worst thing that we could possibly do would be to take them lightly, and that won’t happen.”
LSU and ULM have played 46 times, but the Warkawks were not among the nine Louisiana schools the Tigers played this season.
“I’m really excited,” said outfielder Raph Rhymes, who’s from Monroe. “I told my parents that I hoped we would end up playing ULM. I grew up with most of those guys, and it’s going to be a lot of fun to be able to play them in an atmosphere like this in the NCAA postseason.”
Rhymes is one of more than a dozen Tigers who have not been to the NCAA tournament before.
“This is what you come to LSU for, to play in the postseason and for all of the fans in Alex Box,” Rhymes said. “It’s something that I have always looked forward to. I can’t wait.”
Nola is one of four fourth-year seniors who not only have played in the NCAA tournament, but won a CWS title.
“We’ve worked hard, and to get this is a reward for us,” Nola said. “But we know that we can’t look ahead, because we’ve got a very good baseball team in ULM coming in here. They’re going to give us their best game. With this NCAA field, every team is so good, and every team knows how to win.”
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