(Note: This article is
part of a series, by Jeff Dahn, that highlights specific collegiate baseball
programs going into the 2011 season. To
view the articles on other schools in this series please click here.)
In 12 years as the head baseball coach at Notre Dame, Paul Mainieri experienced everything that was positive about being in charge of big-time college program.
He won more than 530 games during his stay in South Bend, Ind., earned several coach of the year awards, led the Irish to numerous NCAA postseason tournaments and even escorted them to Omaha in 2002 for a date at the College World Series.
But none of that prepared Mainieri for what he was to encounter when in June of 2006 he accepted the head coaching position at what many consider to be the Mecca of college baseball: Louisiana State University.
In being welcomed to Baton Rouge, Mainieri stepped foot on a stage unlike any other in the country, one built by legendary coach Skip Bertman, who led the Tigers to five College World Series Championships in his 18-year tenure.
“It was really a difficult transition in a lot of ways, first of all just going from a northern program to a southern program,” Mainieri said. “I felt good about how we had built the program at Notre Dame and created some interest, but it paled in comparison to the interest level at LSU.”
LSU boasts 8,800 season-ticket season holders at three-year old, 10,150-seat New Alex Box Stadium and averaged a standing-room-only crowd of 10,600 in 2010. The folks in Baton Rouge certainly pay attention to LSU baseball.
“The media coverage and the fan interest was really off the charts and something I hadn’t ever seen before,” Mainieri said.
Smoke Laval was hired to replace Bertman in 2001 and Bertman, who became LSU’s athletics director, let Laval go in 2006. That opened up the door for Maineiri’s arrival, and he in turn opened up a new era that saw the Tigers return to the CWS series in 2008 and again in 2009 when they won the National Championship.
In just three seasons, Mainieri had returned the Tigers to the top of the heap. But it really didn’t happen overnight.
Mainieri said he and his staff had some work to do that first year. He said his initial sense about the LSU program was that not only was the talent level down slightly, but the players’ attitude level was also slightly down.
“What we needed to do was get some kids in here that really cared about the right things, that were going to go to class, that were going to do community service work, and they were going to go out in the field and give it their very best effort,” he said.
Mainieri’s first LSU recruiting class that took to the field in 2008 was ranked No. 1 in the nation by several organizations, and that team won 49 games and became the first LSU team to advance to the College World Series since 2004.
“More important even than the talent, it was a fresh attitude that came into the program,” Mainieri said. “Those guys were really the cornerstone of the team that won the national championship (in 2009) and made two trips to Omaha.”
The Tigers did not make a return trip to the College World Series in 2010, but did win 41 games and their third straight Southeastern Conference tournament championship, and advanced to an NCAA Regional for the third straight year.
The 2011 roster was depleted by the 2010 Draft and graduation, but the Tigers return three everyday players from last season in junior outfielder Mikie Mahtook, junior infielder Tyler Hanover, and junior shortstop Austin Nola.
The pitching staff returns seven hurlers who made 18 or more appearances in 2010, including occasional starters right-hander Ben Alsup (5-1, 3.88 ERA), left-hander Jordan Rittiner (4-4, 4.37), righty Daniel Bradshaw (5-1, 5.01) and right-hander Joey Bourgeouis (4-1, 6.68).
All of those players made numerous appearances at Perfect Game showcases and tournaments when they were in high school.
Mainieri brought in a large and highly ranked recruiting class this fall, including freshmen and junior college transfers. He and his staff held on to seven players who were drafted in 2010 but lost five others to the Draft.
Those seven drafted players who are on board – all regular participants in Perfect Game events over the last three or four years – are right-handers Kevin Gausman, Ryan Eades, Tyler Jones and Jimmy Dykstra; left-hander Mitchell Hopkins; third baseman Jacoby Jones; and catcher Tyler Ross.
Gausman was a sixth-round pick by the Dodgers in the 2010 Draft and was Perfect Game’s 17th-ranked national prospect in the high school class of 2010. Jacoby Jones and Eades were 19th round selections by the Astros and Rockies, respectively.
“The emphasis was on pitching and on athletes who are versatile and can play different positions, and I think we came through pretty well with that,” Mainieri said. “This happened to be one of those years where we’re going to have a big transition on our team. From our 2009 national championship team of just two years ago, we only have six players remaining off that entire 35-man roster.”
The majority of the LSU roster consists of native Louisianans, although the reach of Mainieri and associate head coach David Grewe is far ranging. The 2011 roster has players from California, Texas, Ohio, North Carolina, Illinois, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia and Washington. Mainieri said each season’s final roster is usually about 50 to 60 percent players from Louisiana.
“I think it is important for us, as the flagship university of the state, to get maybe the best half dozen or eight players in the state every year,” he said. “There are obviously a lot of other good baseball programs in the state that have made it to Omaha and done well, but that’s our challenge, to make sure we hold onto the best players in the state.”
LSU as a university has plenty of its own selling points to potential recruits, ranging from New Alex Box Stadium to a beautiful Baton Rouge campus that features stately oak trees, lakes and the nearby Mississippi River. LSU’s academic reputation is also exceedingly high.
And Mainieri can also point to LSU’s inclusion in the Southeastern Conference, one of the nation’s premier baseball leagues.
“In the end, I think it all comes down to is the player most comfortable with our team, with the teammates that he’ll have and with the coaches he’ll be working with,” Mainieri said. “It’s nice that we can give to the players virtually every resource that is available. We do an awful lot of things that are about as good as it can be for kids, but in the end I really don’t want kids to come here unless they really believe in the program.”
That’s a similar sentiment to one the legendary Bertman shared with Perfect Game during an interview at the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., in late October. Bertman said when he first arrived at LSU, the players didn’t know how to exhibit a winning attitude.
“The first thing I had to do was make the kids feel special, because they didn’t think they were special enough to win,” Bertman said. “I told them the sights and smells and sounds of Omaha are familiar to me, and that’s where we’re going.”
Mainieri has certainly shown a deft hand in bringing in players who believe in the program. He is 175-84-2 in his four seasons at LSU, a .674 winning percentage. He has won 1,039 games in coaching stops at St. Thomas, Air Force, Notre Dame and LSU.
His ability to bring in top-notch players with integrity and a strong work ethic has certainly worked in his favor. He said the recruitment process has changed in “an enormous way” over the span of his coaching career.
“Certainly these different showcases that we have now and being able to have so many quality players at one locale, certainly makes it more efficient for our recruiting efforts,” Mainieri said. “The trade-off for that is that it’s that way for all the other schools, too, so the competition for those players becomes much greater. It’s hard to find the hidden gems nowadays because the kids are getting such exposure.”
Mainieri will take his Tigers into the 2011 season with the goal of returning to the College World Series for the third time in four years. Mainieri, like Bertman, knows the sights and smells and sounds of Omaha, and he wants to share the experience with a new group of players.
What follows is a list of players on LSU’s 2011 roster who participated in Perfect Game events while in high school. Click on the player’s name to view his Perfect Game profile:
Ben Alsup– PG WWBA
Joey Bourgeois – PG WWBA
Joe Broussard – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Jamie Bruno – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Kirk Cunningham – PG WWBA
Marcus Davis – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Beau Didier – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Grant Dozar – PG WWBA
Jimmy Dykstra– PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Ryan Eades – PG WWBA
Alex Edward – PG WWBA
Forrest Garrett – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA/ PG BCS
Kevin Gausman – Aflac AA/PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Tyler Hanover – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Mitchell Hopkins – PG World Showcase/PG WWBA
Mason Katz – PG World Showcase/ PG WWBA
Jacoby Jones – Aflac AA/PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Kevin Koziol – PG WWBA
Zach LaSuzzo – PG WWBA
Mikie Mahtook – PG WWBA
Kurt McCune – PG WWBA
Austin Nola – PG WWBA
Matty Ott – PG WWBA
Samuel Peterson – PG WWBA
Mike Reed – PG WWBA
Raph Rhymes – PG WWBA
Jordan Rittiner – PG WWBA
Tyler Ross – PG World Showcase/PG WWBA/PG BCS
Nick Rumbelow – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
Jackson Slaid – PG WWBA
Jordy Snikeris – PG National Showcase/PG WWBA
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