Tigers set to traverse the Oregon Trail after getting NCAA tournament bid, face Gonzaga Friday in Eugene

LSU’s Paul Mainieri has been a college head baseball coach for 39 seasons.

Prior to Monday’s announcement of the 64-team NCAA tournament, Mainieri had guided teams to 20 NCAA tournaments including nine coaching for Notre Dame and 11 for LSU.

He can tell you about the NCAA tourney invites that were never extended when he thought they would be, but he carried on because he always knew there was a next season to begin the chase all over again.

This time, though, is different.

“When I woke up (Monday morning), I didn’t know a few hours later if I was going to be an active coach or if my career was over,” said Mainieri, who announced last Friday he was retiring at season’s end.

The NCAA tournament selection committee extended Mainieri’s 15-season LSU career at least one more weekend when it gave the Tigers an at-large bid and a spot in the Eugene (Ore.) Regional hosted by Pac-12 runner-up Oregon.

LSU (34-22, 13-17 SEC), the No. 3 seed in the regional, plays West Coast Conference champ and No. 2 seed Gonzaga (33-17, 15-5 WCC) at 9 p.m. CT Friday night. Top-seed Oregon (37-14, 19-11) plays Northeast Conference champ and No. 4 seed Central Connecticut State (28-13, 21-9 NEC) at 4 p.m. CT Friday.

After a 1-8 start in SEC play, the Tigers finished 13-17 in the league by winning four of their last four series including the last three. Following a 4-1 loss to Georgia last Tuesday in an SEC tournament first-day elimination game, LSU had its RPI fall from No. 22 nationally to No. 28 and its strength of schedule dropped from No. 2 nationally to No. 4.

The combination of the Tigers waiting almost a week after the one-and-done SEC tourney exit and then Mainieri’s unexpected retirement announcement (“It was definitely a shellshock,” LSU left fielder Gavin Dugas said) had the team on edge when Monday’s NCAA tourney selection show on ESPN2 started at 11:30 a.m.

When LSU’s name was finally called, players and coaches exploded with cheers, claps, hugs and a collective sigh of relief.

“I was a young boy watching Coach (Mainieri), he’s been here 15 years,” LSU junior starting pitcher Landon Marceaux said. “He’s done some extraordinary things. We didn’t want that (the SEC tournament loss) to be his last game. To leave on that note would be devastating.

“Now that we have this opportunity, I think it’s really motivating us knowing it’s going to be Coach’s last run. Let’s not focus on us. Let’s focus on doing it for him. Let’s do it for the program he’s been in charge of the last 15 years.”

There’s also the added motivation that if the Tigers win the Eugene Regionals, they would likely advance to play in the Super Regionals at Tennessee if the nationally third-seeded Vols win the regional they are hosting.

This season, LSU was swept by Tennessee in Knoxville 3-1, 9-8 in 11 innings after the Tigers were one out from a win and 2-1 in eight innings of a game shortened to seven innings per SEC rules.

The Tigers have five current position players with a combined 25 NCAA tournament at-bats and five current pitchers who have 34.2 innings of NCAA tourney experience from LSU’s last two appearances in 2018 and 2019.

The lack of experienced starters in NCAA tourney play could be a concern, but Dugas believes he and his teammates have prepared during the regular season for NCAA tourney pressure.

“There’s been a ton of pressure on us all season,” Dugas said. “With how we started out the gate struggling a lot (in the SEC) and what we needed to do to get in the (NCAA) tournament, every game was a postseason game for us leading up to the end of the season.”

This is just the third road regional under Mainieri. The only times the Tigers have gone on the road for the regionals were in 2010 when they were 1-2 in the Los Angeles Regional hosted by UCLA and in 2018 when they were 2-2 in the Corvallis Regional hosted by Oregon State. LSU has been outscored 55-33 in its seven road regional games.

“When we don’t host, the NCAA finds a way to make it as difficult as they can, I feel like we’re going to Siberia,” Mainieri said with a laugh. “They are sending us to what feels like the other part of the world.”

Mainieri said the Tigers will fly to Oregon on Wednesday morning to have two days to acclimate to the time change and the climate. The temperature in Eugene is predicted to drop 27 degrees, from a high of 95 when LSU arrives to a high of 64 on Sunday with nighttime temperatures advancing toward the mid 40s.

Under Mainieri, LSU hasn’t ever played the three other teams in the Eugene Regional.

Gonzaga is 7-14 in seven previous NCAA regional appearances dating back to 1976. The Zags have four players on their current roster who played on the 2018 team that played in an NCAA regional and was eliminated after a win over Canisius sandwiched between losses to UCLA.

The Zags won the West Coast Conference regular season title (the WCC has no postseason tournament) with a 10-0 win over San Diego last Thursday. San Diego won games two and three 9-0 and 10-2 to win the series.

“You have a bad game, you come out the next day and it’s a brand-new day, brand new game and just bounce back like a whole new team,” said Gonzaga ace pitcher Alik Jacob told the Spokane Spokesman-Review. “That’s just something we’ve done all year – battle through adversity like that. I think this team is capable of doing that again this weekend.”

Because of COVID-19 protocols, the Zags didn’t play games during the first two weeks of May as they postponed four games and canceled five.

Friday’s games will be streamed live on ESPN3, and they will be broadcast on affiliates of the LSU Sports Radio Network. The TV/online schedule for Saturday, Sunday and Monday (if needed) is to be announced:

Here’s the Eugene Regional schedule.:

Friday
Game 1: Oregon vs. Central Connecticut, 4 p.m. CT (ESPN3)
Game 2: Gonzaga vs. LSU, 9 p.m. CT (ESPN3)

Saturday                                                     

Game 3: Game 1 Loser vs. Game 2 Loser, 3 p.m. CT

Game 4: Game 1 Winner vs. Game 2 Winner, 9 p.m. CT

Sunday

Game 5: Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Loser, 5 p.m. CT
Game 6: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner, 9 p.m. CT

Monday
Game 7 (if necessary): Game 6 Repeat, 9 p.m. CT

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