Tulane seniors look to break regional ice

NEW ORLEANS — Garrett Cannizaro grew up on Tulane baseball as a national power and perennial NCAA regional team. He even went to the College World Series in 2001 when his older brother, Andy, helped guide the Green Wave to Omaha with what remains a school-record 118 hits.

That’s why he never imagined he would be in his current predicament when he signed with Tulane four years ago. If the Green Wave (28-27) does not win the Conference USA tournament, which starts Wednesday at Rice’s Reckling Park in Houston, 11 seniors will end their careers with no NCAA postseason appearances.

This, for a program that reached 12 regionals in coach Rick Jones’ first 15 years and nine in a row from 1998-2006.

“It was great growing up watching them play in regionals,” Cannizaro said. “That was the huge determining factor in me coming to school at Tulane, because of the excellent baseball program.”

Tulane’s 2012 seniors never played in a regional, either, but that class had only one four-year regular in Jeremy Schaffer. This group has three four-year starters in Cannizaro, shortstop Brennan Middleton and outfielder Brandon Boudreaux and a pair of senior starting pitchers in Alex Byo and David Napoli. Another four-year starter, catcher Blake Crohan, is out with a season-ending knee injury.

All of them were active participants as Tulane came up short of an NCAA regional year after year. They know they have only a few days left to alter their legacy.

“We’re not where we expected to be at the beginning of the year,” said Byo, who will start Tulane’s game against No. 3 seed East Carolina (30-24) on Friday. “We’re not even near that. But we’re a really talented bunch. We just have to come to play. It’s either win or go home.”

Despite entering the tournament with the lowest victory total in Jones’ 20-year tenure, the Wave has some reason for optimism. The rest of the conference is down, too.

Second-seeded Southern Miss (28-25), which Tulane faces at 3 p.m. Wednesday, recently lost two of three at home to SIU Edwardsville, an Ohio Valley Conference bottom feeder that finished 16-35.

East Carolina (30-24) is third-to-last in the league in earned run average. The Pirates also committed seven errors in a three-game series in New Orleans.

Houston (35-20), which Tulane plays Saturday to wrap up its pool, lost 12 of 16 games at midseason and is below .500 since starting 21-4.

Tulane, last in the league in hitting and runs, scored a season-high 15 runs against UCF on May 11 and matched that total against UAB on May 16. The Wave ripped four home runs in four days spanning the UCF and UAB series after going without a homer for 26 consecutive games.

“The league is wide open this year,” Byo said. “There’s no clear favorite. We’re swinging the bats better, so we have a lot of hope.”

They’ll throw three starting pitchers with ERAs of 2.66 or better, including staff ace Rizzotti, returning after missing two starts with a lower-back strain. He allowed three hits in seven innings when Tulane beat Southern Miss in Hattiesburg, Miss. on April 5.

The question is whether the Green Wave will collapse under the all-or-nothing pressure in Houston. Jones said repeatedly earlier this year that his players were tight at the plate, swinging at bad pitches because they wanted to win too much.

“We know if we’re not loose, we’re not going to be where we want to be at the end of the weekend,” Byo said. “To be honest with you, we felt the pressure even in the fall having this class come in four years ago and not make the postseason yet.”

Jones, feeling some heat with a possible five-year NCAA regional drought, admitted this one might hurt the most.

“I don’t know if there would be anything more disappointing (than not making the postseason),” he said. “The senior class has so many super kids that are going to be great successes in life.”