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The Last Stand

July 25, 2005

Mark Miester
Michael DeMocker

There's no other word to describe the gut-wrenching emotion felt by players and fans alike as the Green Wave baseball team saw its dream of a national title end with an unexpected and agonizing 8-7 loss to the Baylor Bears in the College World Series.

tulsum05_sad_bball_1After seeing an early seven-run advantage shrink to a single run with one out in the bottom of the ninth, the Wave still had a chance to salvage a 7-6 victory when a Bear batter hit a bases-loaded grounder to second. For a brief, tantalizing moment, it looked as if Tulane would convert the double play and escape with a heart-stopping victory, but second baseman Joe Holland's throw to first base went wild and wide, allowing Baylor to score the winning run.

For a team that had gone 50-0 when taking a lead into the ninth inning, the ending was as unusual as it was devastating. On the Tulane bench, players buried their faces in their hands. In the stands, blank- faced fans stared in disbelief, trying to process the quick turn of events.

"I've been doing this 30 years," Tulane Coach Rick Jones said after the game. "This is the toughest loss I've ever had, no question...because of the arena it was in, the guys that were involved, the kind of year we've had. It's all gone."

The baseball team's 2005 season might have come to an abrupt end that night in Omaha, but it was a season Green Wave fans will long remember, a season in which Tulane flirted with its first national title in any sport in decades and a season that saw the reputation of Tulane baseball grow to unprecedented heights. The excitement actually began before the Green Wave had even played an inning. In January, Baseball America magazine put Tulane on the cover of its college baseball preview and declared the Green Wave its preseason No. 1 team.

The Green Wave did not disappoint. Playing with a bull's eye on its back all season long, the team racked up 56 wins--including a sweep of archrival Louisiana State University--and won the Conference USA regular season title, the Conference USA tournament co-championship, the New Orleans Regional and the New Orleans Super Regional. Tulane finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in every national poll and entered the College World Series as the national No. 1 seed.

The College World Series is baseball's version of basketball's Final Four or football's Bowl Championship Series, albeit with a decidedly Midwestern flavor. For 10 days each June, Omaha's population swells by thousands and college baseball becomes the prevailing topic of conversation at restaurants and taverns in the historic Old Market district. The Green Wave arrived in Omaha June 16, two days before its first game. The expectation was for an extended stay in the heartland.

Saturday, June 18

The center of Green Wave support in Omaha, on game day at least, is a pavilion tent on Bob Gibson Boulevard, a block from Rosenblatt Stadium, the site of the College World Series since 1964. The 6,000-square-foot tent sponsored by Tulane's Office of Alumni Affairs serves free burgers, brats, soft drinks and beer to Green Wave fans and provides them a convenient place to meet. Despite temperatures in the 90s, the mood preceding Saturday's opening game against Oregon State is festive.

Turchin regulars and fans from all over have gathered to cheer on the Wave. Athletics director Rick Dickson and new head basketball coach Dave Dickerson are in attendance, as are Tulane President Scott Cowen -- his white hair dyed Tulane green -- and chair-elect of the Tulane board, Philip Greer. "This is a lot bigger than baseball for Tulane," observes fan Bruce L. Feingerts (A&S '72, L '75), who flew up from New Orleans to see the series with his son.

"When have we been No. 1 in the nation in anything? It's quite an accomplishment. The key to success in academics as well as athletics is that people know who you are. This is another opportunity for us to get the Tulane name out."

Tulane's first game in the series turns out to be closer than most fans would have liked. Oregon State carries a 1-0 lead into the seventh inning when pinch hitter Scott Madden, the only remaining member of the Green Wave's 2001 College World Series team, strokes a two-out two-run double to center field. An inning later, Nathan Southard adds to Tulane's lead with a solo shot to left field as Tulane goes on to defeat Oregon State 3-1.

While Madden deserves credit for knocking in the winning run, Brian Bogusevic in all probability saved the game in the sixth with a diving catch in right field that saved three runs. The 2005 College World Series is off to a good start for the Wave.

Sunday, June 19

Tulane players and fans gather on the banks of the Missouri River for a steak fry and riverboat cruise to benefit the I-80 Omaha Cosmopolitan Club, a service organization dedicated to raising funds to help cure diabetes. A late afternoon breeze cuts the sweltering heat and spirits are high. Players sign a seemingly inexhaustible supply of hats and balls for kids in attendance, while parents and alumni celebrate yesterday's victory. Not lost on coach Jones is the fact that it's Father's Day.

"I want to thank everyone for coming," Jones tells the crowd, "and I want to acknowledge the most important people here--the parents."

tulsum05_helmets_1The parents of the Tulane baseball team are an unusually close-knit group who share in each other's joy and pain. Despite being scattered across the country, many of them have not missed a game - home or away - all season long.

"We have gone to every single game except for some Tuesday games, and we missed one weekend series," says Rhonda Emaus, mother of freshman Brad Emaus. "We come from Georgia, so it's a lot of traveling. Coming in here the first year, the parents have been unbelievable to us. It's truly like a family away from our family."

"I only missed one series during the season," says James Riser (M '80), father of Matt Riser. "I can work until I die. I can't come back and do this later." Before leading the crowd in a concluding Hullabaloo cheer, Jones adds one last thing: "We ate some great steaks tonight, and we're looking for more Longhorns tomorrow night!"

Monday, June 20

If it's even possible, the crowd in the Tulane tent tonight is even larger than it was on Saturday. Use of the tent is divided between Tulane and Omaha-based corporate sponsors, but the vast majority of those in attendance - and certainly the loudest - are wearing olive and blue. "Based on 2001, we estimated there would be 250 Tulane people in the tent," Tulane alumni affairs director Charlotte Travieso says of Monday's crowd. "There were 582 people there."

Unfortunately, the camaraderie in the tent turns out to be the highlight of the day. Texas pitchers combine on a seven-hit masterpiece as the Longhorns blank the Wave, 5-0. The loss sends the top- seeded Wave into an elimination game against Baylor.

Tuesday, June 21

Despite last night's performance, the mood at the Crowne Plaza Omaha Old Mill, the Tulane team hotel, is positive. Parents of the players, alumni and other fans gather in the lobby before leaving for Rosenblatt Stadium. "I think the exposure that the baseball team is bringing to Tulane, as it did in '01 and as the football team did with the bowl game in '02, is great," says head football coach Chris Scelfo, as as he walks through the lobby with his son on their way to the stadium.

"Any time something positive is broadcast nationally, I think it benefits everyone. This team has a lot of class. They have great leadership."

That evening versus Baylor, the leadership appears to be evident. In the second inning, Tulane builds up a seemingly insurmountable six-run lead and adds another run a few innings later to make it 7-0 against one of the tournament's weakest-hitting teams. Fans relax and virtually everyone in the stadium begins to anticipate a Tulane-Texas rematch. Sitting in Section B is a sun-reddened local named Annie, one of the many Omaha residents who attend the College World Series every year.

Talk is that the waiting list to purchase season tickets to the series is six years, so fans lucky enough to get them tend to hold onto them for years, creating a familiar, family-like atmosphere in the stands. Some fans even make the trip from as far away as California to attend the games. Annie came to Rosenblatt intending to root for Texas, but she's been converted to Tulane.

"They show the majors of the players on the screen," she explains. "You look at some of the players on some of the teams and they're majoring in things like PE, communications or 'pre-criminology.' What is pre- criminology? When they show the players from Tulane, they're majoring in finance and pre-law and biomedical engineering."

Like a lot of fans, Annie leaves the ballpark in the sixth inning thinking Tulane would be playing Texas the following night with a slot in the championship series on the line. Like a lot of fans, Annie leaves too soon. Baylor's remarkable comeback sends Tulane packing and leaves everyone looking for explanations.

"Baylor came back and you've got to give them a lot of credit for that," says shortstop Tommy Manzella, his voice cracking with emotion at the postgame press conference. "I just know everything all the guys have gone through this year, and to have it end and end the way it did, it's pretty tough to take."

The 2005 Tulane baseball team started the regular season ranked No. 1 and never dropped lower than No. 5 in any poll. It finished the season ranked No. 3 by Baseball America, which also named Jones its National Coach of the Year. The team received the academic award for the highest cumulative GPA among College World Series participants, and throughout the season the Green Wave demonstrated the ability of athletics to inspire and unite the entire Tulane community.

"I know we came in as a 'one' seed and then we went one and two and we're really disappointed, but we had 56 wins and we played in the NCWS and we had a grade point average over 3.0," Jones says at that final press conference in Omaha. "I'm real fortunate to have had an opportunity to coach these guys and I think it really helped our program and it's something we're going to build on. "I think we'll be back," Jones concludes, "and I think we'll be back pretty soon."


Tulanian

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