By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Will Davis has attended far too many games at Alex Box Stadium to keep an accurate count.
First he was a fan growing up in Baton Rouge. Davis then attended LSU and spent four years as a reserve catcher for the Tigers. Upon graduation he spent one season as the program’s coordinator of baseball ops before joining Paul Mainieri’s staff as the volunteer assistant, a post he held for seven seasons.
But there’s one role he never played in any of those hundreds of games at the new or old Alex Box: visitor.
That’ll change Tuesday night as Davis, now the 32-year-old, first-year head coach at Lamar, leads his team into Baton Rouge to take on his alma mater. First pitch is set for 6:30 p.m., and Davis expects a host of family and friends to be in attendance for his first return trip to his old stomping grounds.
“I think it’ll be weird,” Davis told Tiger Rag in an exclusive interview. “Obviously I’ve never coached a game in Alex Box Stadium against LSU. It’ll be different, but once they say play ball, it’s just a baseball game.”
Davis has coached against his old mentor as an assistant. Last year, when Davis was still the coach-in-waiting and an assistant under the legendary Jim Gilligan, who retired at the end of last season, the Tigers traveled to Beaumont for the first midweek game of the season.
It was a memorable one, to say the least. The Cardinals stormed back from an early 8-0 deficit to stun LSU 12-11.
“That was probably even weirder because I’d been on that team in the fall,” Davis said. “I haven’t actually been a part of this team, though I helped recruit a lot of those kids and coached a lot of those kids.”
LSU comes into the game at 25-12 off consecutive Southeastern Conference series victories against Arkansas and Ole Miss. Lamar enters the game playing arguably its best baseball of the year, coming in at 22-15 on the strength of a five-game winning streak.
“I think it’s going as well as it could,” Davis says. “We’ve had a little bit of a tough schedule, but it’s been fun. We’ve got a good group of kids that we really like and just learning a lot about what we need to do to be successful here. Learning the conference and what we need to do in recruiting to be successful.
“It’s funny, when you come from a program like LSU, 22-15 feels like 5-30. I know there’s a lot of teams of there that would kill to be 20-15. I don’t know if I’ll ever adjust to that, though. My expectations are to be that good.”
As a Type-A personality and the son of a coach, Davis has taken well to being the boss of his own program. He relishes the role of decision maker and being the guy who ultimately bears responsibility for the results.
There was an adjustment period while he got his bearings to a vastly different recruiting landscape. When recruiting at LSU, which has state-of-the-arts facilities and national name recognition, the approach is to mine Louisiana for every SEC-caliber player that fit before searching nationally for out-of-state stars like Alex Bregman, Kevin Gausman and Alex Lange that make for championship clubs.
At Lamar, Davis says, almost the entire roster can be recruited out of Texas. It’s a good thing, too, because due to Gilligan’s retirement announcement, Davis inherited a recruiting class with virtually no commitments with time ticking toward signing day.
Davis and his staff had to work quickly, and thanks largely to the strong Texas junior college circuit, they managed to salvage a reputable haul. Now in his first full cycle at the helm, Davis and Co. have Lamar trending toward pulling in the top class in the Southland Conference.
“Just learning the nuances of that kind of stuff,” Davis said. “Every school is different. And it’s just about what’s figuring out what’s best for the program. Learning Lamar is a good thing for me.”
Davis will be the next in what’s been a string of Mainieri protégés and former players to take on LSU this season.
LSU defeated Air Force, coached by Mike Kazlausky, who played under Mainieri during his stint at the service academy, back on opening weekend. Former Tiger Blake Dean presided over a rare home-and-home sweep of the Tigers for UNO. LSU will close out the regular season against Andy Cannizaro and Mississippi State.
But Davis, who left the program in the fall of 2015 with Mainieri’s blessing, spent more time under the skipper than any of the others.
“I think he definitely prepares you,” Davis said. “First thing, with each passing year he gives you more and more autonomy. He’s good about that. When I was 23 working for him, I didn’t have the same power as when I was 30 working for him. But he’s good about giving you more when you’re ready.
“Plus he likes to talk. He’s always talking about different parts of the program, so you’re learning a lot about what he’s thinking and how he’s feeling and how he handles certain situations. I like to think I’m a good listener and have a good memory, and I was with him for 8 ½ years, so he told me a lot of stories. I remember the names and the places and the stories, and I’ve used a lot of that in how I’ve handled things here.”
The two have traded some texts messages in the past year and a half. Davis has remained close with the LSU staff, most of whom he either played with, coached alongside or coached during their own playing days. He and recruiting coordinator Nolan Cain were best man in each other’s weddings.
Expect a warm reunion for all involved behind home plate during pregame warm-ups. And then, once the first pitch is thrown, it’ll just be baseball.