HOUSTON, TX- As Saturday afternoon stretched into Saturday night, the Tulane Green Wave had to defeat two opponents on their way to winning the regular season American Athletic Conference championship with a 4-3 victory- the Houston Cougars and Mother Nature.
Early in the game, it looked like they might not have that much trouble with either. As the game got underway for the scheduled 3:00 PM start, it was warm and muggy, and while the skies were overcast, there was little sign of any rain. Then, when Tulane stepped to the plate in the top half of the first, they came out on fire.
Stephen Alemais got things started by striking out on an Andrew Lantrip breaking ball in the dirt, but in foreshadowing for how the day would go for the Green Wave, he reached first when the ball got past Houston catcher Jacob Campbell. After Grant Witherspoon flied out to center field, Hunter Williams launched a mammoth home run to left field to stake his team to an early 2-0 lead. Just one batter latter, Jeremy Montalbano added his own long home run to left, and the Wave were quickly up 3-0.
But the Cougars weren’t ready to fold up and call it a day quite yet. Lantrip settled in after that point and lasted into the fifth inning before being lifted, and the Houston offense chipped away with a run in the fourth thanks to a Campbell two-out RBI single and then a run in the fifth on a Zac Taylor home run, his first of the season, no less, that rivaled those of Williams and Montalbano in terms of distance. Suddenly, the Cougars were right back in it.
Then, as the fifth inning came to a close, the Green Wave’s second opponent showed up and the game went into a lengthy weather delay. And this delay was not your garden variety weather delay. The tent under which the Tulane radio broadcast was being done on the roof of the press box was blown down during the downpour. The Houston official who was monitoring the weather in the press box noted that, at one point, there had been some 4,000 lightning strikes within an eight-mile radius of the park. All told, the teams stood in a holding pattern for more than three and a half hours before re-starting at 8:10 PM.
After coming back out, Houston continued to hold the momentum. John King retired Tulane in order in the top of the sixth inning, and in the bottom half of the frame, the Cougars struck for another run, this time with a little help from the twilight sky.
For the first out of the inning, Josh Vidales flew out to center field, but Green Wave center fielder Grant Witherspoon seemed to struggle to pick up the ball until it was right on him. The very next batter, Campbell, lifted one to a similar spot, but this time, neither Witherspoon nor right fielder Lex Kaplan could see it, and it fell harmlessly between them for a double. Justin Montemayor followed with an RBI single, tying the game at three.
Momentum is a fickle thing, though, and it didn’t last long for the Cougars. Leading off the seventh inning, Tulane’s Jake Willsey took King out to right field for a go-ahead home run, his ninth on the season. When the ball cleared, the Green Wave dugout absolutely exploded.
Willsey credited that type of exuberance for his team’s ability to stay sharp, even after a long rain delay and surrendering the lead immediately after taking the field again.
“We’re all playing for each other,” he said. “We love each either. It’s just a family in the dugout. There’s no dearth of talent, either. This is a very good baseball team, best I’ve been a part of. We’ve got a shot to go a long way.”
Before the season, it might have been a tough sell to convince anyone that Jake Willsey would hit perhaps the biggest home run of the regular season for the Green Wave. That’s no slight to Willsey; it’s just that he had not hit a single round-tripper in his first two seasons at Tulane. This season, though, he has really taken a step forward from a power standpoint, with his nine home runs good for third on the team.
For Willsey, his results are the product of hard work put in with the coaching staff.
“It’s all about the swing adjustments I’ve made,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of work with Coach (Sean) Allen, too, since I’ve come back and I’ve been able to tap into my power a lot more.”
From there, J.P. France, Tulane’s usual Tuesday starter, closed out the Cougars and sealed the Green Wave’s league title.
Credit has to be given to head coach David Pierce for getting this program turned around quickly. A regular season championship in just year two is quite an impressive feat. But Pierce is quick to instead credit many others who have helped put he and his team in this position.
“I just credit a lot of people- our whole staff, our support staff, the previous staff who did a great job of recruiting a lot of these guys. There are a lot of people- our administration…everybody involved. We’ve just had so much support. The kids have just responded so well. I’m just so happy for everybody.”
The only thing that he sounded happier discussing was the work of his players.
“They’re tenacious, and they’ve got guts, and they’ve got character,” Pierce said. “They just keep playing hard. One thing we talk about is that the strength of our team is our team itself. That was really exemplified in game two yesterday when we were just banged up. (We did) just a great job of coming back and fighting some adversity early in the series, the way the whole thing went…13 innings (in game one), the length of time, just a lot of stuff that we fought. And look what they did, they won a championship.”
The timing of that particular quote was apt, as mere seconds after he uttered those words, a group of those guys he feels so strongly about came racing onto the field to dump a cooler full of water on him.
Having defeated the Houston Cougars and Mother Nature over the span of more than six hours, Pierce summed up his feelings on the big at-bat late in the game by Willsey and the efforts of the entire team succinctly.
“You know, I’m really proud of him and the whole team.”