I’m not the overly optimistic type. Even though I love a good joke and getting out of hand, I like to think that I have a sharp focus when negotiating this thing called life. So, what I’m saying is, I’m not going to laugh at the American Athletic coaches poll picking the Tulane Green Wave to finish third right now, but I do expect to laugh at the poll at the end of this regular season. Tulane baseball enters 2017 with too much experience and talent to not win the American.
Or not. What do I know? It’s a hell of a conference and the Green Wave will be in a three-horse race with East Carolina and Houston all year long. Those three teams, while battling each other, will also have to look over their shoulder at the UConn Huskies.
Here’s another way to think about it — Tulane, the returning regular season champion, will go head-to-head with East Carolina, the only American Athletic team that advanced to last year’s NCAA super regionals, and Houston, who lost the American conference tournament to the UConn Huskies, who won last year’s tournament. It’s going to be a wild ride.
Big Games Early
Tulane sports an improved non-conference schedule this year that should prime the Green Wave for a run at the American conference championship. After an opening weekend versus the likes of Air Force and Army, the Green Wave enter a salty five-game road trip. First, the Wave travel to Hammond to play Southeastern Louisiana in a solid mid-week match up. Then, Tulane heads out west to take on #25 UC Santa-Barbara Gauchos — a team picked to finish second in the Big West after last year’s surprising run that took the team all the way to the College World Series in Omaha.
The Green Wave get back to the southeast but head to Southern Miss to take on the Golden Eagles at Pete Taylor Park, a field where Southern Miss posted a 28-4 record last year on its way to the NCAA regionals.
On the home front, Tulane will host the West Virginia Mountaineers who, even though picked to finish fifth in the Big 12, are making some sleeper lists and can’t be overlooked. West Virginia made it to the Big 12 championship last year, in a league that eventually ran roughshod over the NCAA tournament. The Wave also host San Diego, picked to finish first in the West Coast Conference, and will have already played the likes of LSU, UCLA and Vanderbilt by the time they visit New Orleans.
Besides that? Oh yeah, home-and-home series versus the #5 LSU Tigers and #13 Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns. Hold on to your hats, Olive and Blue faithful.
Fortunately, an early bumpy road will be met with plenty of veteran leadership. The Green Wave will roll with four seniors who have more than 100 starts for the team — Hunter Hope (162), Lex Kaplan (157), Jake Willsey (127), Hunter Williams (100). In modern sport, “Games Started” is often an overlooked stat, but it is a factor that means more in college sports than many, more popular stats. These guys have been here, they remember the bad taste of a losing season, they’ve fought to get the team back into the playoffs. They’re Tulane. When the team stumbles, these will be the guys to steer the ship. And as the end of the regular season approaches these will be the men willing it not to end.
One can’t talk about leadership without mentioning fellow senior, but only in his second year with the club, Jeremy Montalbano, who started last year off with a bang, sending a three-run walk-off home run into the Uptown night to ignite the Green Wave season. Montalbano kept swinging a big bat throughout the year, knocking in 45 runs with 12 home runs.
On the mound, Tulane will have one of the best weekend rotations in the country. Senior Corey Merrill (31 starts) rightfully returns to the starting rotation, after being designated as the team’s ace closer last season after a lengthy arm injury. Merrill (2.05 ERA) will form a nasty one-two punch with sophomore phenom Ross Massey (2.29 ERA). Junior J.P. France (16 starts, 33 appearances) sports a pair of wins over archrival LSU and rounds out the rotation.
Every successful team replaces star players with new talent and Tulane is no different. New faces Sal Gozzo and Kody Hoese will try to replace shortstop Stephen Alemais. Coach Travis Jewett will most likely rotate these two in and out of games and situations to see what they have, and hopefully one will shine. While it’s cool to see kids get playing time, you want to see one become a no-brainer by conference play.
The aforementioned Montalbano will be called upon to fill the shoes of catcher Jake Rogers which, defensively, will be no small task, and who will be the closer? Sam Bjorngeld and Christian Colletti have the experience but haven’t been counted on in that role so far in their career. One hopes that Tulane has another gem — a Ross Massey coming out of the bullpen — lying in wait. This is the biggest hurdle facing the Green Wave.
So, buckle up, New Orleans. The “big horse” of Tulane athletics is back and it’s going to be another great year in Uptown. Tulane opens up the season at 6:30 p.m. this Friday versus Army at Turchin Field.
And like a fine wine with a steak dinner, every game should be accompanied by a beverage and song.
Beer Pairing: Wayward Owl Brewing's "Tawny Twit" English Pale Bitter
Playlist Recommendation: Mitch Miller – “Happy Days Are Here Again”
Around The Way
March Madness looms ever larger as the New Orleans Privateers (15-9) have moved into first place in the Southland men’s basketball standings. UNO sits at 10-3 in the conference, a game ahead of Sam Houston State (9-4) with Stephen F. Austin sitting third at 8-4. The Privateers will host Sam Houston State at Lakefront Arena on Feb. 23.
The Privateers are riding a three-game winning streak and play three of their last five conference games at home. Moreover, they’ve already beaten three of their upcoming opponents as well. Get thee to the Lakefront, New Orleans!
Nope! I didn’t forget about Blake Dean and UNO baseball. The Privateers were picked to finish eighth in the Southland, which has to be taken with a grain of salt as well after the 2016 Privateers were picked to finish dead last before going 31-26 for the program’s first winning season in seven years.