August 4, 2005
It is a crisp Sunday afternoon in early April, and the Green Wave men's baseball team has just finished a three-game sweep over conference foe University of Alabama-Birmingham. The 3,000 fans are heading for the exits while a gaggle of toddlers run the bases, a Sunday tradition at Turchin Stadium. Junior pitcher Brian Bogusevic watches from the dugout, chatting with teammates along the bench after what must be a satisfying 13-5 victory over the Dragons.
He is still sweating from his six-inning performance. Just then, a freckled-face boy, baseball and black ballpoint pen gripped firmly in hand, approaches the weary southpaw. "Are you the pitcher?" he asks, tugging at Bogy's pants leg. "Yeah, that's me," Bogusevic says, then signs the ball between the stitches with a flourish.
To young freckle face, and to most of the Green Wave fans, Bogusevic is not just a collegiate pitcher. He is the Man, the Green Wave's top-rated player in its most anticipated season in school history. But at this point, on this sunny day in April, Bogusevic knows the 2005 season is only halfway over. The words "Omaha" and "College World Series" are still gilded in expectation and the dream of a championship.
"The season's gone well so far. We've had two tough weekends, but other than that we've played pretty well," Bogusevic says. "The big thing has been taking everything one day at a time. You can't try to win 56 games at once. No matter win or lose, yesterday doesn't determine what will happen today."
"Yesterday" opened with high expectations for the Green Wave baseball team. It all started with the Baseball America magazine cover. There, splashed in glossy sheen, stood Bogusevic and junior transfer Micah Owings, heralding a much-anticipated announcement: Tulane baseball was ranked No. 1 in the nation. The ranking ignited a powder keg of expectancy under thousands of Green Wave baseball fans who had helped make the program one of Tulane's healthiest.
Talk spilled into the local sports pages and buzzed over the Internet and the drive-home sports shows. This wasn't going to be just another year. This was going to be The Season. It was a daunting challenge, but one the team says it was ready for.
"I think it wasn't unexpected, because we knew what type of talent we had out here," Bogusevic says. "But we also knew that wasn't the end, it was just the beginning. We knew we had a long way to go."
In his 12 seasons as head coach, Rick Jones has nurtured Tulane's baseball program from a tough regional threat to a national powerhouse. The first milestone came in 2001, when he simultaneously broke the iron grip on Louisiana State University's domination during a three-game Super Regional series at Zephyr Stadium and led the Green Wave to its first College World Series in school history. At the start of 2005, however, the underdog title had given way to a No. 1 ranking.
Now the team was on top, with all the laurels and trappings national prestige brings. "It wasn't the first time we've had a lofty ranking, but with the No. 1 comes a certain amount of expectations," Jones says. "Throughout the season you expect to get everyone's A game, and you have to learn how to handle that type of pressure." And, through the first half of the season, the team has battled the flames well.
With a 25-5 record, Tulane found itself in April to be ranked by various polls in the top four in the nation. Contributions have come from everywhere: the heavy bats and strong defense from seniors Scott Madden, Nathan Southard and Tommy Manzella; the strong pitching from J.R. Crowel, Brandon Gomes and a fire- spitting bullpen; the clutch hitting of second-year player Will Rice.
"In my 12 years of baseball here, this has been the best defensive club I've ever coached, along with some of the best pitching," Jones said. "I've had nine NCAA tournament teams here, all of which had excellent skills. It's hard to top some of the talent on our past teams, but the pitching and defense have been the best I've ever seen."
Though the team is solid up the roster, it is Bogusevic and Owings that have major league baseball scouts bringing radar guns and notepads to Turchin Stadium. (The two 6-foot-plus phenoms, who worked dual roles as starting pitchers and clutch hitters, would eventually be taken high in the draft, with Bogusevic going in the first round and Owings in the third.)
Bogusevic's star rose quickly at Tulane, harnessing his immense talent during his two-plus seasons with the team. Though an aching hamstring has limited his ability to hit regularly in the lineup, Bogusevic's commanding mound work has garnered a 5-1 record. "Coach Jones always talks about playing three: pitching, playing defense and hitting," says Bogusevic. "Most games this year we've done two out of three well, and have hit timely, which has carried us through games. Hopefully we can start doing all three together."
Like Bogusevic, Owings has fought through his own physical adversity. After two stellar seasons at Georgia Tech, Owings transferred to Tulane seeking his first trip to Omaha. Heralded as a power hitter, Owings struggled to keep his average up in the early season, still recovering from a preseason surgery and new-team jitters.
"It's not rocket science that I've struggled a little bit, the numbers speak for themselves. But you got to keep plugging in practices and in cages, whatever you're doing to stay after it," Owings says. "It's tough to be behind someone when they're down, and it's a whole lot easier when they're doing good. But the guys have been there for both."
The camaraderie felt by Owings through his early struggles helped push his game, and by mid-season he was leading the team in homeruns and slugging percentage. That teamwork also has been a key part of surviving a 56-game season, Bogusevic says. Take, for instance, the mustache story. The mustaches were supposed to be a clubhouse joke, one of those shave-your-head, wear-the-same- underwear unity pledges baseball players make during a long season.
The members of Tulane's nationally ranked baseball club knew head coach Jones banned Mark McGwire goatees, but mustaches were tolerated. And hey, what's team camaraderie if you can't do something unique? So, early in the season, players let the facial hair grow. As the wins mounted, so did the 'stashes, and if you glanced at them with a quick eye, you could mistake them for the starting lineup of the 1976 Oakland Athletics -- Catfish Hunter clones for the 21st century.
"It was one of those off-the-wall things," Owings said. "We knew coach allowed mustaches, so we said shoot, and some of the guys just started to let them grow." "It started out as a joke and turned into something that everybody was doing," says Bogusevic. "Obviously it doesn't affect the way anybody plays, but it's fun stuff. Something you can do to keep everybody together and keep it fun when you're out here six, seven days a week."
The mustaches stayed until Tulane lost a tough March series against C-USA rival Louisville. Owings and the rest of the team shaved that weekend.
The first half of the 2005 season has had its share of highlights. There was the weekend sweep of No. 9 ranked Arizona State at home, and a surprisingly routine victory over Louisiana State University at Alex Box Stadium, deep in the heart of Tigah Country. But the season's greatest early moment came on a chilly March evening against defending national champions Cal State-Fullerton.
The Titans, who played Tulane in a heated Super Regional matchup last year, were traveling to Tulane for the first time in school history. As the sun set and the temperature dipped into the 50s, 4,200 fans wedged into the bleachers, or stood elbow to elbow along the baselines at Turchin. They were rowdy students, passionate alumni, and locals with no ties to the school other than the love of baseball and they were ready for battle.
After a quick top-half inning for Bogusevic, Tulane center fielder Nathan Southard walked to the batter's box, bat tightly gripped in hand. Cal State-Fullerton star southpaw Ricky Romero whipped a hard fastball high and tight, breezing Southard's jersey. "BOOOO!!!" The bleachers rattled, sending the cries of 4,000 into the crisp night sky, past the stadium lights of Claiborne Avenue. The cold didn't matter. This was it, this was what The Season is about.
Tulane dropped the first game to Cal State 15-1, then fell short in a comeback attempt a day later in front of 10,000 fans and clear skies at Zephyr Stadium. But on Sunday, Tulane banged out a 13-8 win for the school's first-ever victory against Cal State-Fullerton. The game was also a message: Nice to see you, hope we meet again in Omaha.
"When you take a job, you hope that at some point in time the expectation levels and the interests of the fans grow to a heightened level," Jones said. "We got 17,000 people for the Cal State-Fullerton series. We had 14,000 people for Arizona State. We had a 'businessman's special' game at 1 p.m. this season, and I was expecting maybe 1,000 people to show up. We had 2,500 people attend the game. They know that this is a rare, unique thing for college baseball."
It is halfway through the season and Jones, Bogusevic, Owings and the rest of the team know what lies ahead. Crosstown rival the University of New Orleans is on the immediate horizon, a weekend series against University of North Carolina-Charlotte, a nationally televised game against LSU, then the C-USA tournament, the Regionals, the Super Regionals. And then, hopefully, Omaha. "We know what we want to accomplish," Owings said. "And we know what the big picture is. We just have to take it one weekend at a time."
Geoffrey Shannon is a 2004 graduate of Tulane College and a former sports editor for the Hullabaloo. He is currently a news reporter at the Slidell Sentry-News.
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