As it turns out, J.C. Love Field at Pat Patterson Park, colloquially known as the “Love Shack,” is a place where Louisiana Tech baseball fans can, as the song suggests, get together, and of late, that’s exactly what they’ve done in droves.
While it’s not quite the vaunted home-field advantage of LSU’s Alex Box Stadium or the stadiums for other powers in the southeast, the place has quickly garnered a reputation for rowdy and raucous home crowds.
“The ballpark is located between two of the busiest intersections on our campus,” says Louisiana Tech head coach Lane Burroughs. “So you can ride by and there’s a lot of traffic, and you can see the field from both streets. You’re able to look on to the field and see it and how pretty it is, our turf, how it pops out, and our old-school stadium. We’ve got our student housing in the outfield, so especially night games, those students come out, bring their chairs out on the balconies, and look out over the field. And then in right-center, we have the railroad track. At least five times a game, a train comes by. We call it the ‘rally train.’
“Everybody loves a winner. It’s just like I tell our guys. They’re going to come out and see you, because essentially, we’re entertainers. If they like the product, they’re going to come back. We’ve been fortunate enough to play well at home. We’re packing this thing out. Hopefully, we’ll get to the point where we can’t hold everybody and we have to rebuild it.”
The prime location, the aesthetically-pleasing playing surface, the atmosphere helped by the housing behind the outfield wall, and the fact that there is an “only show in town” quality to Louisiana Tech athletics probably all play a vital role in making the stadium rock the way it does, but that last point hits the nail on the head. Fans will turn out for a winning ballclub, and with what they’ve accomplished over the last several years, the Bulldogs qualify.
They’ve gone 36-20 and 39-20 in the last two seasons under Burroughs, and if you factor in a 42-20 season in 2016, they’ve won 35 or more games three years in a row for the first time since 1989. Prior to the last three years, the Bulldogs hadn’t won 35 or more games in any single season since 2007.
The 21 wins in Conference USA play in 2018 are also a program record for conference wins, and Burroughs has won 75 games in his first two seasons as head coach, the most of any La Tech head coach in their first two seasons at the helm. Suffice it to say that this is a program that has found a new level of consistency as a postseason contender, and that on its own is a profound statement for longtime observers of the program.
For example, it’s not just that the 21 conference wins this past season are a program record. Taking a wider view, the conference win totals from each of the last three seasons, 19 in 2016, 17 in 2017, and 21 in 2018, are the three highest conference win totals in program history. The three consecutive seasons with 35 or more wins is also the first time the Bulldogs have had three consecutive winning seasons, period, since stringing together six such seasons, ending in 1989, under stadium namesake Pat Patterson.
But perhaps more than anything else, until recently, Louisiana Tech was just simply overshadowed, both in the region, certainly by the likes of LSU and Tulane, but also by upstarts like Southeastern Louisiana, and in the conference by Conference USA powers like Rice, Southern Miss, and FAU. Their success, brought on by a confluence of factors, has started to change that.
“It all starts at the top from your administration and it trickles on down,” Burroughs says. “Our president of the university is at every game, he supports us, our athletic director is there all the time. We upgraded the facility a little bit. The year before I got here, Louisiana Tech was able to get hot at the end of the year and get into a regional, and I think that obviously is going to help your recruiting when you’re in the postseason. Ruston is a great place to live, it’s a true college town where everyone here is behind our athletic programs. It’s just a matter of getting the right kids on campus.”
To be fair, as he alluded to, there had been success immediately prior to Burroughs and his staff arriving in Ruston. That 42-win 2016 season, under then-head coach Greg Goff, ended in the program’s first regional appearance since 1987. While that means that there was some talent on the roster and an expectation of winning when Burroughs took over, both positives in the grand scheme of things, it also put him in a unique position.
This wasn’t a situation where the program needed to be torn down in order to be built back up. Positive momentum was already well underway, and it was up to the new staff to simply keep things moving in the right direction. On its face, that’s a better situation for a new staff, but it also brings with it pressures and challenges.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever encountered walking into a job where they were coming off of a great year, one of the best years in school history,” Burroughs says. “It has its own set of obstacles and hurdles. Now you’re kind of a target. You’re not going to sneak up on anybody. They know who you are…You come into a program, and now they’ve won and won at a pretty high level, and they expect it to continue.”
By just about all measures, Louisiana Tech has been a regional-caliber team in each of the last two years. There’s no magic number for gaining an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, of course, but 35 or more wins, in a multi-bid league, will usually put you in the neighborhood. That’s to say nothing of the 20-plus wins in league play, which is also usually a good sign for postseason hopes.
They’ve looked the part on the field as well. The 2017 team boasted a .305/.409/.483 slash line for a lineup that collected extra-base hits like they were going out of style. The 2018 team, meanwhile, was a bit more balanced. They still hit a solid .282/.389/.423 as a team, but their team ERA was down almost a whole run from the year before, from 4.44 to 3.48.
But ultimately, in both seasons, they just came up a little bit short in their efforts to earn an at-large bid to a regional. Even with all of the positives of the last two seasons, their respective resumes just didn’t stack up well enough to make them an obvious inclusion into the field of 64. They found themselves on the bubble each time, and didn’t hear their name called. Despite having the look and feel of a regional club, they weren’t a regional club in the only way that truly matters – hearing your name called on Selection Monday. Heading into 2019, that will understandably be a point of motivation.
“It leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” Burroughs says. “You know you had a great body of work and you took care of business. We played the teams they put in front of us. Like anybody, you’re going to have bad losses, it’s baseball. We had a couple of those. You have to take it out of the committee’s hands, you have to leave no doubt…It’s like a boxing match. If you don’t knock the guy out, you’ve left it in the hands of somebody else, and there’s no telling how that’s going to go.”
The good news for Burroughs and his team is that they have a roster returning in 2019 capable of leaving no doubt and propelling the Bulldogs back into the postseason.
Eight of the team’s top nine hitters from 2018 are expected back, including leading hitter Hunter Wells (.357/.421/.443), the team’s leading doubles hitter in Parker Bates (18), on-base machine Taylor Young (.479 OBP), and stolen base leader Mason Mallard (25-for-26 in SB).
It’s a similarly rosy situation on the mound, where the Bulldogs will return all three primary members of their weekend rotation in Matt Miller (5-5, 4.20 ERA), Logan Robbins (7-1, 4.66 ERA), and Logan Bailey (8-1, 2.24 ERA), along with midweek starter David Leal (4-4, 2.27 ERA), swingman Tyler Follis (2.53 ERA), and relievers Kyle Griffen (2.75 ERA) and Braxton Smith (3.21 ERA).
“The good thing is that we have most of our team coming back next year,” Burroughs says. “Those guys want to be in a regional and we don’t want to be a flash in the pan program. We want to be a team that is consistently getting there year in and year out, not once every two or three years.”
Part of developing into that type of consistent program is methodically laying a foundation marked by roster continuity year over year. That can be somewhat difficult to do when you lean heavily on junior college recruiting, when, typically, you are only getting two years from players, with many of those transfers not hitting their stride as Division I ballplayers until their second year.
Goff enjoyed a great deal of success recruiting JUCO players to Ruston, as his 2016 regional team listed more than 25 such players on the roster, and Burroughs has continued that success in mining junior colleges, with much of the core of the last two rosters coming from those ranks.
But as much success as the program has had with that strategy, and with as much affinity as Burroughs has for junior college players, he realizes that’s not necessarily the best way forward in an effort to build long-term success.
“When we got there our first year, we had 15 seniors,” Burroughs says. “We have a lot of seniors coming back this year because we had to sign a lot of JUCO guys. I think you have to go to high school to build a program and to lay that foundation. One good thing we have going is that we had two freshmen (Young and Steele Netterville) who started every day for us in our very good lineup this year. So you see that progression of not just recycling every one or two years of junior college players. I love junior college players, I love them, but I think if you continuously do that, it’s going to catch up with you. You have to lay that foundation.”
Louisiana Tech checks a lot of boxes if you are looking for a program on the rise. They enjoy quite the home-field advantage, they’ve got a recent tradition of success, and they’ve got a coaching staff in place that is committed to winning right away without mortgaging the program’s future growth.
Let’s put it this way. If each college baseball season is like a boxing match, you might say that the program is preparing not just to go ten rounds and get back up after getting knocked down, but to land that knockout blow each and every time.