Jan. 25, 2012
NEW ORLEANS - In 23 days the Tulane baseball program will open their 2012 season inside the wrought iron gates of Greer Field at Turchin Stadium and for seniors Frank Florio, D.J. Ponder, Jeremy Schaffer and Nick Schneeberger this will be their final seasons to wear the Olive and Blue and try to lead the Green Wave to the NCAA Tournament.
With eight players not returning for the 2012 season, head coach Rick Jones will have a few spots to fill in his lineup. The Green Wave had a very competitive fall at the plate, with nine players hitting better than .290, and the pitching staff had seven players reach the 15-inning plateau in their 11 intrasquad games. The Olive and Blue lost starters in center field and at first base, while a pair of spots in the rotation open up this season.
Overall, Tulane will return 19 letter winners from last season, including seven position starters and three pitchers that started at least five games last season. Eight newcomers enter the mix and will provide help on the mound and at the plate. Three freshmen join the roster, while five players join the fold from junior colleges.
"So many positions are still unsettled," said head coach Rick Jones, "we have a lot of competition for a lot of the positions. The next three weeks before we open the season are going to be extremely important to how we write out our lineup on opening night. From a pitching standpoint, we have to get some semblance of who our closer is going to be and then try to get our rotation intact."
"As always, we want to win a conference championship, advance to the NCAA tournament and get this program back to Omaha," said senior catcher Jeremy Schaffer. "We have heard it all offseason; how good we were early on last season. If we can play with that consistency for a whole season we should have a great chance to getting this program back to the tournament. We didn't score a lot of runs at times last year, but this past fall we did a much better job of that. Our lineup should have a little more power this season and that should allow for more run production and help us win some more ballgames."
Last season the Green Wave watched their fast start - 17-4 through their first 21 games - end up as a 31-26 overall record. The 2011 slate included 11 losses by two or fewer runs, 28 combined starts on the mound lost due to injury and a pair of injuries to the team's two top relievers at midseason. Despite the bevy of injuries, Tulane was able to advance to the Conference USA Tournament in Jackson, Miss. where they posted a 1-2 record in the pool play format.
"Everyone is healthy entering the season," said senior pitcher D.J. Ponder. "It's a little different than last year. We had a few setbacks to some key guys our rotation that hurt us down the stretch, but everyone is healthy now. We are really looking forward to the opportunities we have this season and if we can all stay healthy we can have a really good year. "
Schaffer was named First Team All-Conference USA last season after ranking among the league leaders in seven offensive categories and ranking among the national leaders in doubles per-game (0.40). The Bellaire, Texas product paced Tulane on 12 offensive charts and earned All-Louisiana honors from the states sports writers. Schneeberger ended his first season on the Uptown campus with a selection to the All-State squad. The senior ranked second on the team in eight categories, including batting average (.301), hits (52), RBI's (35) and stole bases (seven).
"What we need to do is continue to build on what we were doing towards the end of last season," said senior outfielder Nick Schneeberger. "I think we have a different mindset this season and I think that we can have a really good season and hopefully make a push to get back into the postseason. This fall we were much more aggressive at the plate, which should help us a lot this season, and our team speed has really improved. That should really help us put more pressure on teams at the plate this season."
After sitting out last season due to NCAA transfer rules, Florio helped the Green Wave get off to their hot start. The Long Valley, N.J. native ended the season with a .205 batting average, but a three-run home run in the eighth inning against Sam Houston State gave Tulane the victory and allowed them to take the series from the Bearkats.
Ponder is the lone pitcher in the senior class and had his best season on the mound in 2011. The right-hander appeared in 17 games - including one start - and compiled 28 innings and 14 strikeouts, all career-highs. He picked up three wins and a save during the 2011 campaign, winning versus Alcorn State, Wichita State and at Rice. His save came against Southeastern Louisiana and 11 of his appearances lasted longer than one inning.
"We have a great group of guys this season," said senior outfielder Frank Florio. "Our team has looked really good so far and even though the program hasn't been where we all want it the last few years, I have total confidence in our team this year. I really think that we can contend this season and be a factor in the postseason discussion."
The road back to the NCAA postseason is not going to be an easy one with the depth and talent that is in Conference USA and the competitive non-conference slate in 2012. The C-USA portion of the schedule features four NCAA Tournament teams from last season (East Carolina, Rice, Southern Miss & UCF), but the conference is much strong from top to bottom. The Green Wave will play non-conference weekend series against Alabama, Indiana and at Wichita State, along with midweek matchups versus Louisiana-Lafayette (twice), Louisiana-Monroe (twice), LSU (twice) and Southeastern Louisiana (three times).
"We have to stay healthy," Jones said when asked about a return to the NCAA postseason. "We also have to continue to make the adaptation to the way the game is played with these new bats, but I think after a year under our belts we have a very good feel for that."
The Olive and Blue open their practice schedule on Friday, January 27 with an afternoon session on the turf at Turchin and will have a little under a month to prepare for their season opener against Sienna. Tulane will entertain the Saints February 17-19, with opening night slated for a 6:30 first pitch.