Tigers draw Utah Valley Friday in Baton Rouge Regional opener
By JAMES MORAN
Tiger Rag Associate Editor
The road to Omaha will run through Alex Box Stadium — so long as the Tigers keep on winning.
LSU received the No. 8 national seed during the NCAA Tournament selection show Monday morning, meaning, provided they survive the Baton Rouge Regional, they will hold hosting right to the super regional.
“Honestly, I was at peace with whatever happened,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said moments after the reveal. “But obviously I’m thrilled that they selected us. It’s wonderful to think that you don’t have to pack your bags again until Omaha if you’re fortunate enough to get there.”
The Tigers will begin the NCAA Tournament on Friday at 2 p.m. against No. 4 seed Utah Valley. Rice and Southeastern will come to the Box as the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds, respectively.
Peering deeper into the bracket, the Baton Rouge Regional is paired with the Raleigh Regional, which consists of North Carolina State (1), Coastal Carolina (2), Saint Mary’s (3) and Navy (4). But, for now, LSU’s focus remains on the three teams heading to the Box this weekend.
“You’ve got to win the regional for the super regional to even be a thing,” lefty Jared Poche’ said, asked for veteran advice for his young team. “Not looking forward to anything. Just take care of game one, and if we win game one, take care of game two. We’ve got to take each game one game at a time.”
Mainieri added: “Being a national seed won’t help you win one game. You have to earn everything in this tournament.”
The news sent a celebratory, if not relieved, roar through the team’s watch party in the Champion’s Club. The scene felt more jubilant than the almost matter-of-fact nature of landing the No. 2 overall seed in 2015.
Nervous tension boiled to an all-time high as the television broadcast flashed Clemson as the No. 7 overall seed, leaving just one spot for LSU and a host of other deserving clubs.
“I thought we were going to get that seven spot,” shortstop Kramer Robertson said. “And when they got it, I was like oh man. It was really exciting when our name came up. I was pumped up.”
“I kind of felt like we were going to be the eighth seed or nothing,” freshman right fielder Antoine Duplantis said. “It’s going to be fun, but we’ve still got to take it one game at a time.”
It’s a fifth straight national seed for Mainieri’s crew, and seemingly the most unlikely of the bunch.
Standing at 11-10 in league play, the Tigers were shaky candidates to even host before closing the season in torrid fashion, winning 14 of their last 16 games and advancing to the SEC Tournament semifinals in Hoover last week.
That’s not to mention many leaving the club for dead and branding 2016 as a ‘rebuilding year’ after the team sputtered out of the gates looking anemic at the plate and losing five of its first seven SEC contests.
“(Mainieri) said we were going to go 12-0 to finish the season,” Poche’ said. “We went 11-1, so it wasn’t too far off. I thought that was pretty crazy.”
Despite LSU’s prolific string of consistency, Jake Fraley remains the only every-day starter with any significant NCAA Tournament experience.
“It’s huge to be able to play at the Box,” Fraley said, eluding to his team’s postseason greenness. “Having that atmosphere through these big games will be an unbelievable experience for these guys. We’ve put ourselves in the best position you possibly can before you play any games.”
Selection Monday stands as another affirmation of what’s been a banner season for the SEC, with the league getting seven host sites and four national seeds. No. 1 Florida, No. 4 Texas A&M and No. 6 Mississippi State all join LSU on the top line. Ole Miss, South Carolina and Vanderbilt are the other hosts.
“I was not surprised because it just seems like the selection committee has continued to trend toward everything being based on merit,” Mainieri said. “You can’t say everything is based on merit and not give seven host sites to the SEC because any of those seven teams could have national seeds in my opinion.”
As far as the Baton Rouge Regional itself, Mainieri said he hadn’t made any decisions on a pitching plan nor his postseason roster.
Prior to the selection show, Mainieri distributed the team’s two annual awards with the help of a pair of notable presenters.
First, Wally Pontiff Sr. awarded the Wally Pontiff Jr. Award, given to the LSU baseball player who best embodies the ideals of a student athlete, to Jared Poche’.
“I didn’t really think my grades would ever be good enough,” Poche’ laughed. “But I had a pretty good semester academically and I’m honored to receive an award like that.”
Next up was the annual Skip Bertman award, given by the legendary coach himself, which goes to the LSU player who best personifies toughness and leadership. That one went to junior centerfielder Jake Fraley.