They say the world of sports mirrors life away from the game. If that is the case, the best way to describe the Tulane University baseball team over the past couple of seasons would be a theme park - more specifically a roller coaster.
In 2004, the Green Wave's caravan connected with the chain that carried it to the top of a steep peak as they began an upward climb by winning the NCAA Oxford Regional. In 2005, Tulane continued its ascent as the program entered the year ranked No. 1 in the nation and turned the preseason pressure into a Conference USA title and trip to the College World Series.
Last year, the team hit a sharp turn as the city of New Orleans was shaken to its very foundation when Hurricane Katrina and the team subsequently moved to Lubbock, Texas, and the campus of Texas Tech for the fall semester. The Green Wave returned to campus in January, made a temporary move to Zephyr Field in Metairie and hit a bit of a dip as the team's record stood at 20-14 in early April. That dip proved to be a small one, however, as the team rebounded to post a 43-21 mark, earned a spot in the NCAA Regionals for the ninth consecutive season and advanced to the Regional Championship Game for the third straight year.
After the tooth-rattling turn experienced a year ago and a return to campus where Tulane will play in a brand new Turchin Stadium, the 2007 season figures to put the Green Wave back on the climb as the boys in olive green and sky blue are working on returning to the pinnacle of college baseball - the College World Series.
"Going into every season, I get very excited about the upcoming year and this year is no different," Tulane head coach Rick Jones, who enters his 14th season at the helm of the Green Wave program, said. "The polls have us picked in the Top 15 or 16 in the country, and if that materializes, that means we're picked to make a Super Regional. From there, all you have to do is win two of three and we're back in the College World Series.
"But these projections are made in January, not June. We have to work to reach that point. But the polls ranked us where they ranked us because we do have talent and have some experience."
Of the returning players, the Green Wave bring back two of its weekend starters in senior Brandon Gomes and junior Sean Morgan on the mound as well as the set-up services of junior Trey Martin and the consistent arm of Tulane and C-USA career saves leader Daniel Latham.
From a position standpoint, Tulane will welcome back six starters - junior middle infielders Brad Emaus and Cat Everett, sophomore third baseman Seth Henry, sophomore outfielder Warren McFadden, senior catcher Ty Wallace and senior designated hitter Tim Guidry.
In addition, the Green Wave welcome back 10 other lettermen and look forward to the return of senior southpaw J.R. Crowel and sophomore infielder Jonny Weiss, who redshirted the 2006 season due to injury. The list of newcomers features a pair of transfers - catcher Jared Dyer from San Jacinto College North and right-hander Shooter Hunt from the University of Virginia - as well as two lefties, a pair of right-handed pitchers, two outfielders, a catcher and yet another two-way athlete.
"The two things you talk about when it comes to baseball are high ability level and experience," Jones said. "Those are things that have a major impact on your team's ability to succeed. But a commitment to the program and a commitment to the team are things that are incorrigible. Fortunately, we've had as much fortune there as anyone.
"I like this club, I like the commitment to the team, and I like the experience we return. I also think we're a very athletic club. We won't be in the new Turchin Stadium until sometime later in the spring, but once we do, I know it'll be one of the great days for every one of our kids, myself, the coaches and all of the fans. That day can't get here soon enough. But until it does, I want to make sure we're well into our season with a very good win-loss record."
A question mark heading into last season, the pitching staff figured to be one of the stronger points of the 2007 Green Wave squad. Entering 2006, Tulane faced the daunting task of having to replace all three of its weekend starters from the season before. Now, preseason All C-USA selection Sean Morgan and fifth-year senior Brandon Gomes return after a season when the pair combined to win 15 games.
"Sean was our Friday starter last year, he has a power arm and he also swung a very good bat for us in the fall," Jones said. "He can dominate a game. When he's on top of his game, he is a dominant force. He's become a tremendous student, and his experience should help us there.
"Brandon Gomes is a fifth-year senior, had a great fall and is a tremendous competitor. He has great stuff, a lot of experience and is another tremendous student. Those guys bring back a lot of experience and talent."
Tulane also returns its top two arms out of the bullpen in junior Trey Martin and senior Daniel Latham. Martin posted six wins and a 2.32 ERA last season as the team's primary set-up man. Latham, meanwhile, posted a career-best 14 saves in 2006, now holds the Tulane and C-USA saves record (33) and is just 16 saves away from the all-time NCAA mark.
"Daniel Latham has emerged as one of the premier closers in the history of our school and our league, and certainly has a chance to become one of the dominant closers in the history of college baseball," Jones said. "Then you throw in a guy like Trey Martin, who made great strides for us last spring. With those two guys in our pen, it allows you to play teams differently. If you have a lead after seven innings, you have a better chance of winning with those two guys. Those are good things to have on your club."
In addition, the Green Wave also welcome back the services of sophomores Peter Connick and Jonathan Garrett, junior John Michael Vidic, and seniors J.R. Crowel and Matt Goebel. Crowel and Goebel figure to be the wild cards on the staff as Crowel is coming off successful shoulder surgery and Goebel is two seasons removed from elbow surgery. Time will tell if Crowel can return to the form that helped him become a three-time All C-USA selection, and Goebel was impressive during the fall.
Headlining the list of newcomers to the pitching staff is Virginia transfer Shooter Hunt. Following his freshman season with the Cavaliers, Hunt put on a dominant display in the Cape Cod League where he led all hurlers with 54 strikeouts and was named the No. 9 prospect in the CCL by Baseball America.
Other new faces on the staff are rookie right-handers Preston Claiborne, Taylor Rogers and Drew Zizinia along with lefties Hunter Johnson and Aaron Loup. Claiborne is one of the most highly decorated players to join the Green Wave from the high school ranks after earning first-team All-District 10-5A honors three consecutive seasons at Newman Smith High in Dallas. In addition, he has a power bat and will likely see time at a corner infield position and could see time as the team's designated hitter.
Loup is a local product out of Hahnville High where he posted a 32-7 career record while Rogers earned the Fireman Award as the best pitcher in the Central Texas All-Star Game. The duo of Johnson and Zizinia were teammates at Bellaire (Texas) High where the pair helped the Cardinals win a combined 54 victories over the last two years. The Bellaire hurlers also teamed in the 2000 Little League World Series where they helped the Houston-based team win the national championship.
"Shooter Hunt brings a lot of talent and had a great summer in the Cape Cod League," Jones said. "He has an opportunity to give us a lot of help on the weekend in a starting role. Then when you look at the freshmen, we're going to count on all of those guys. It'll be a matter of whoever makes the strides the quickest will get the opportunity to get the ball a little more often."
The triumvirate also produced at the plate as Emaus posted six homers and 45 RBI, Everett sported a .419 on-base percentage and Henry tallied eight doubles, a homer and 23 RBI. With another year of experience, those numbers figure to go up in 2007.
Not to be outdone, senior Tim Guidry returns following a career year in 2006 when he hit .333 with 39 RBI primarily as the designated hitter. He, along with Jonny Weiss - who was the team's leading hitter before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in the ninth game of the year - can play almost anywhere in the infield, and with the defensive ability of reserve Robbie Whitman, give the Green Wave flexibility and versatility at almost every position.
"We've got a lot of options in the infield, and it starts in the middle with one of the more talented and mature middle infielders in the country in Cat Everett," Jones said. "We've had some great shortstops, but I don't know if you'll find anyone more steady then Cat. He's been great defensively, but he's a guy you want at the plate in RBI situations because he's a good clutch hitter.
"With Brad Emaus at second, we have one of the premier players in the country. He gives us a great middle infield - one of the best in the country and perhaps one of the best ever. We moved him there because more balls go toward the middle then they do the corners."
Also expected to push for time as a corner infielder is Preston Claiborne, who in addition to his pitching prowess, can swing a big stick. As a junior, he hit .430 with six homers and 25 RBI and helped lead the Trojans to a trio of district championships. In addition, sophomores Nate Simon and Anthony Scelfo - who will primarily play in the outfield - could also see time closer in as well.
"Jonny Weiss was our leading hitter before he got hurt, and it's hard to believe he won't be in the lineup somewhere," Jones said. "Tim Guidry can play third, second and first and Preston - who had a really good fall for us - can play first or third. One of those guys will have the opportunity to DH and the other will play in the corner. There are some good options out there."
Two thirds of the Green Wave outfield graduated from the one that patrolled the grass a year ago. But with the return of Conference USA Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American Warren McFadden and a glut of talent eager to prove their worth, the outfield figures to once again be as solid as ever.
While McFadden appears to be ready to return to his post in right field for a second consecutive season, the front runners for the other two positions are sophomores Aja Barto and Nate Simon. Barto suffered through an injury-plagued rookie campaign, but like McFadden, had a solid summer in Falmouth where he blasted three homers and four doubles while driving in nine. Simon, meanwhile, hit .283 as one of the Green Wave's key bats off the bench in 2006 and had one of the best overall fall seasons of anyone on the team.
"Warren McFadden was the conference Freshman of the Year and he was a two-time Florida High School Player of the Year, so that's a solid outfielder," Jones said. "Aja is the second-fastest runner on our team and is one of the guys we feel he has a chance to have a break-out year. Nate Simon had a very good fall offensively and showed signs of being a very good outfielder, as did Barto."
Adding pressure on the trio penciled to start during fall drills are sophomores Scott Powell and Anthony Scelfo, and juniors Grayden Griener and Rustin Rebowe. Powell was one of the big surprises of the fall season when he hit .333 during the Fall World Series and was successful on all five stolen base attempts. Scelfo - who also plays quarterback on the Tulane football team - provides a solid left-handed bat where he hit .241 with a homer last season. Griener, the third member of his family to play baseball for the Green Wave, is a solid defensive outfielder, and Rebowe will look to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2006.
"I think we're athletic and talented in the outfield," Jones said. "Who plays is going to come down to who is on top of their game offensively. That will dictate the outfield we play more than anything else. I think a lot of those guys have the ability to play well in the outfield.
"We have a lot of really talented guys out there and we have a lot of experience coming back. We have a lot of athleticism, a lot of guys who can run well and guys who have pop in their bats. Our situation is very competitive across the board. When you have a lot of good players on your team, that's going to make them push each other to be better, and as a coach, you can't help but like that."
A year ago, the Green Wave had to replace a two-year starter with a pair of backstops that had never played in a single Division I baseball game. In 2007, Tulane returns a senior in Ty Wallace - who started for the Green Wave down the stretch and into the postseason run - and adds the talents of junior college transfer Jared Dyer from one of the most prominent programs in the country.
Dyer comes to Tulane from San Jacinto College North where he helped the Gators to a Region 14 championship and a third-place finish in the Junior College World Series. He hit .315 with six homers and 35 RBI, including a .307 clip, three bombs and six RBI in the JCWS.
"We've got two catchers - one is a junior college transfer from last year and the other is a junior college transfer this year. Both of those guys have experience and both can help us offensively. From a positional standpoint, I think this is an upgrade from what we had last year both from experience and ability.
"The incumbent there is Ty Wallace," Jones said. "He finished strong for us last year, had a good fall and has shown some pop. Jared Dyer is a very talented player. He's a junior college transfer from San Jacinto and had a very good season last year for them."
Sophomore Marc Robért will provide depth at the catcher's position, as will true freshman Andrew Robinson.
Thirty-eight home games and the return to Turchin Stadium highlight the 2007 Tulane University baseball schedule. The Green Wave will open the year playing its home games at "The Shrine on Airline" but plan to move back to its on-campus facility as soon as construction of the new Turchin Stadium is completed.
"I don't think you can be a member of a league like Conference USA and play in the state of Louisiana and not play a challenging schedule," Jones said. "Our 2007 schedule is one in which we'll have to be ready to play every day. With our conference games, games against state teams, and then you throw in a team like Wright State and two traditional powers from the West Coast, and once again this will be a schedule that will challenge us and prepare us for the postseason."
The Green Wave will open the year on Feb. 9, against in-state foe Southeastern Louisiana at Zephyr Field before traveling to Hammond for game two and back to Metairie for the series finale. Tulane will also play three-game, non-conference home series against North Florida (Feb. 16-18), Wright State (March 2-4), Loyola-Marymount (March 9-11), Siena (March 16-18) and Chicago State (May 17-19).
Tulane's home C-USA slate features series against East Carolina (March 30-April 1), Houston (April 20-22) and UAB (May 4-6). The Green Wave will also play its usual slate of midweek contests against state foes McNeese State (March 6), Nicholls State (March 27, April 25), Louisiana-Lafayette (April 10) and Northwestern State (April 17), and a Wednesday showdown with UNC-Asheville (March 7).
In addition to the annual two-game series against arch-rival LSU (Feb. 27 in Baton Rouge, April 3 at Zephyr Field), the Green Wave will continue to play a three-game WOW Café & Wingery Cup series against cross-town foe UNO (March 13 at Zephyr Field, March 20 at Maestri Field, May 1 at Turchin Stadium).
The series against Wright State will be an interesting one for Tulane fans as former Green Wave assistant coach Rob Cooper enters his third season at the helm of the Raiders' program and led them to the NCAA Regionals last season.
The Green Wave's road schedule begins with a three-game slate at Southern Cal (Feb. 23-25) and Tulane will also play C-USA weekend tilts at Marshall (March 23-25), at Southern Miss (April 13-15), at UCF (April 27-29) and at Rice (May 11-13).
"When you schedule, you look at the league schedule and say `that has to be our focus,'" Jones said. "From a non-conference standpoint, you've got two factors: a good balance of in-state opponents during the middle of the week and on the weekends early in the season, you want to challenge yourself and also give yourself an opportunity to play as many guys as possible.
"By the time you get to conference, you want to have as many wins as possible, but also have a good feel of where you are as a club so you can do well within your league. To do that, you have to have good mix of the talent you're playing and you've got to go on the road."
In the previous 13 seasons under Coach Jones, Tulane has become a team that has moved firmly into the national spotlight. From making nine consecutive NCAA Regional bids, to advancing to a trio of Super Regionals and making the College World Series twice since the 2001 season, the Green Wave have joined the ranks of the nationally elite.
"We have some quality experience, and when your best players are your best leaders, you really have something special," Jones said. "I really think we have a chance to be just that. Injuries are something that you can't avoid, but that's part of it. Adversity is something that evolves throughout the course of a season. It's not something that defines you. How you respond to adversity is. We had more adversity last year then I could ever imagine, but we responded to it well.
"We're playing as good of a schedule as we can play, our league is one of the top leagues in the country, and we've got to be ready to play every day. Whatever adverse situations come forward and how we respond to it is what will define you."