Posted at 5:18 pm on January 26, 2019

“A chance to be really special” | LSU embracing great expectations and unfinished business of 2017

Terrill Weil
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James Moran
James Moran was named Editor of Tiger Rag in August 2018. He previously served as the associate editor since 2014. He covers LSU football and baseball and is a graduate of the LSU Manship School of Journalism.

Between the shiny new video board in left field and the weight room under construction beyond the right-field fence, Paul Mainieri is excited about the recent renovations to Alex Box Stadium.

Now the coach is focused on creating a need to update the “Intimidator” sign that towers above the bleachers in right.

The iconic billboard boasts LSU’s six national championships, including the program’s most recent triumph in 2009 under the direction of Mainieri.

“I am proud of our 2009 national championship,” Mainieri said, “but quite frankly, I am ready for another one.”

LSU has been perhaps the nation’s most consistent program since Mainieri took over, advancing to the College World Series five times in the past 11 seasons, but a decade later that seventh national title has proved elusive.

Never were the Tigers closer to seventh heaven than in 2017, when LSU came up two wins short in the championship series against Florida. That team was led by a group of veterans who turned down pro ball for another run at Omaha and a bumper crop of impact freshmen.

The parallels from that team to the one that began practice Friday are impossible to ignore.

Zack Hess, Zach Watson and Antoine Duplantis don’t have a catchy moniker for themselves like the “Fab Four” title bestowed on Kramer Robertson, Greg Deichmann, Jared Poche’ and Cole Freeman, but Mainieri believes they can have the same impact.

“It feels very similar to that,” Mainieri said. “The four kids that came back two years ago, they all have special qualities to them. And these three kids, I feel the same way.”

Each member of the trio confessed to little planning as a group. They traded text messages before the MLB Draft cranked up following their loss to Oregon State in the NCAA Regional, but each made their own individual decision to come back for one more year.

“With all due respect, I didn’t feel comfortable with my career ending in Corvallis, Oregon,” Hess said. “I want my career to end in Alex Box, hopefully with 13,000 people there and us punching our ticket to Omaha.

“I don’t feel like any of us really influenced each other’s decisions, but we all realized that we had a chance to do something special if we came back in 2019.”

Hess, Watson and Duplantis all recognize the impact those veterans had the 2017 club. They understand that it was as much about veteran leadership as it was the considerable production of the “Fab Four.”

They were all at one point the wide-eyed youngsters playing their part of an Omaha-bound team. Now it is their turn to provide the example for all the young talent that surrounds them.

“I hope that everyone looks at me as a leader,” Duplantis said. “I try to lead by example and be the hardest working player on the team so people realize that you can’t just go through the motions to have success. You have to put in the work and have that same effort and attitude every day.”

LSU also benefits from the healthy return of Josh Smith and Eric Walker, two heroes of that 2017 run. Smith played in just six games last year due to a back injury and Walker missed the entire season after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

On top of that, LSU signed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country thanks to some good fortune in the MLB Draft.

Highly-touted pitchers like Landon Marceaux and Jaden Hill turned down seven-figure signing bonuses to come to school, and new position players like slugger Saul Garza, catcher Brock Mathis and infielders Drew Bianco and Cade Beloso will help fill out what should be a deep, balanced lineup.

Aside from Austin Bain, most of LSU’s key contributors from last season are back. Ma’Khail Hilliard, if healthy, is a versatile arm. Todd Peterson leads an experienced bullpen that returns Matt Beck, Devin Fontenot and Caleb Gilbert as well. Those hard-throwing freshmen will only bolster the bullpen.

Those converging factors add up to a world of hype for this LSU club. The Tigers begin the season ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in all five of the major preseason polls despite having to grind just to make the NCAA Tournament last season.

Mainieri is neither downplaying the expectations nor trying to shield his club from the pressure that comes with them. It’s his opinion that the pressure will bring the best out of his team during a difficult non-conference slate and better prepare them for the rigors of Southeastern Conference play.

However, the coach is instituting a new rule to keep his players focused on the task at hand. Once Media Day festivities concluded, players are under strict orders to not talk about Omaha or winning a national championship.

As far as he’s concerned, LSU is officially on to UL-Monroe.

“I have given them free reign to talk about it today, but after today, if you ask them questions, they are going to be talking about UL-Monroe because that is our next game,” Mainieri said. “That is going to be our philosophy throughout this season, just take it one game at a time and not look too far ahead. It is very disrespectful when we talk too far ahead because every opponent on our schedule is capable of beating us. We have a very difficult schedule ahead of us.

“There are hopefully going to be plenty of ups, and there are going to be some downs. Our players are going to have to handle it and that is part of every season. How we handle the bumps along the way will determine what kind of team we have.”

Given one day to look at the big picture before settling in for the grind, LSU’s players echoed their coach’s belief that this club shares many of the same earmarks that made the 2017 group special.

Maybe, they hope, this group can turn out to be a little bit more special.

“Hopefully we have a different result at the end than my freshman year, but that team was special,” Smith said. “And this team has a chance to be really special.”

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