Saturday, June 16, 2018

Appreciation Article: LSU Baseball's Dominance in the 1990's

In the 1990's, the college baseball world saw one of the greatest dynasties emerge out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Led by legendary head coach Skip Bertman, the Tigers of Louisiana State University captured four national championships in a seven-year span.

As an homage to their dominance in Omaha, join me now as I take you through LSU's title runs in 1991, 1993, 1996, and 1997.

Bringing a Baseball Title to the Bayou (1991)
Coming off two straight trips to the College World Series, Skip Bertman and his LSU team were looking to finally break through in the 1991 season and actually make it to the national championship game.

Getting to the Postseason
The Tigers climbed to No. 1 in the polls and posted a record of 44-16 (19-7 SEC) to claim their eighth SEC Regular Season championship. They played host to the 1991 SEC Tournament at Alex Box Stadium as the No. 1 seed, but they ran into trouble against the rival and No. 2 seeded Florida Gators.

Despite beating Florida four times in the regular season, the Tigers struggled against the Orange and Blue in the SEC Tournament as they lost to them twice. The latter of the two losses came in the SEC Championship and put a small damper on what had been a successful year of SEC play.

South Regional in Baton Rouge
In the South Regional at the Box, LSU did not run into too much trouble with the teams in their bracket. They opened up the 1991 NCAA Tournament with a crushing 13-2 victory over Northwestern State. Next was Oklahoma, who would give them a run for the money but would fail to pull the upset as the Tigers downed the Sooners 4-3 in the quarterfinals.

In the semifinals, LSU hooked up with future SEC opponent Texas A&M and soundly beat the Aggies 8-1 to advance to the regional finals for the third straight season. With Omaha on the line, the Tigers would run into the Ragin' Cajuns of SW Louisiana (aka UL-Lafayette). LSU's in-state opponent would not deter them, as they beat the Ragin' Cajuns 8-5 to clinch a third consecutive College World Series appearance!

College World Series
In Omaha (dubbed Baton Rouge North by the Tiger fanbase), LSU had their shot at revenge as their first opponent was Florida. Forgetting all about that loss in the SEC championship game, the Tigers thumped the Gators 8-1 to move on to the second round.

Next up was Fresno State. Though Fresno State would get their moment in 2008, they would have to remain in the shadows as LSU routed them 15-3 to cruise into the semifinals. Out of the loser's bracket and ready for another round came the Gators. Again, the Bayou Bengals whipped their SEC rival as they smoked Florida 19-8 to make it to their first College World Series National Championship Game in school history!

Facing the Tigers would be the Wichita State Shockers, who had won it all just two years ago in 1989. This would not rattle LSU, however, as they beat the Shockers 6-3 to claim their first-ever baseball national championship in school history! They also finished the postseason a perfect 8-0!

True pioneers on the diamond. The '91 squad celebrates their title.

Campus Legends
Here is the roster that ended LSU's title drought on the diamond:

Of course, what is a team without its coaching staff? Here are the coaches who helped the Tigers finally cap off a successful postseason run:

  • Head Coach
    • Skip Bertman - 8th season at LSU

Back on Top (1993)
After losing to eventual runner-up Cal State Fullerton in the 1992 postseason, LSU was out for blood in the 1993 season.

Getting to the Postseason
The Tigers were again the No. 1 team in America and won their fourth consecutive SEC Championship as they went 41-14-1 (18-8 SEC) in the regular season. In the first year of the separate SEC East/West Tournaments, the Tigers were tourney champions as they battled out of the loser's bracket to defeat Mississippi State in the final. Doubling down on both SEC titles guaranteed that LSU would once again be hosting in the NCAA Tournament.

South Regional in Baton Rouge
The Tigers kicked off their quest for a second title in three years with a 7-2 victory over Western Carolina. In the quarterfinals, however, trouble struck as Kent State upset the Tigers in a 15-12 slugfest to send them to the loser's bracket.

Needing to dig deep, LSU took care of Baylor 13-6 in their elimination game to set up a date with 2-0 South Alabama. In their first meeting, the Tigers clobbered the Jaguars 11-4 to set up a winner-take-all game. Again with Omaha at stake, LSU did not fold to the pressure and defeated South Alabama 9-4 to return to Baton Rouge North.

College World Series
In the College World Series, the Tigers were rolling on all cylinders as they beat Long Beach State 7-1 in first round and then out-slugged Texas A&M 13-8 in second round. In the rematch with Long Beach State, the Tigers dropped a tight one 10-8 before edging out a 6-5 win to head back to the National Championship.

Waiting for them yet again in the final game of the year was the Wichita State Shockers. Like before, the result was a Tiger victory as an 8-0 shutout gave LSU their second national championship in school history! They finished 8-2 in the tournament and had won four elimination games on route to another title!

Talks of dynasty may have been looming as LSU hoisted their second title in three years.

Campus Legends

Featuring some of the guys from the first championship team, here is the roster of the two-time champion LSU Tigers:
  • Pitchers
    • Matt Chamberlain (Junior) (Drafted 318th overall in the 11th round by the Pittsburgh Pirates)
    • Rick Greene (Sophomore)
    • Will Hunt (Senior) (Drafted 865th overall in the 31st round by the Detroit Tigers)
    • Brett Laxton (Freshman) (CWS All-Tournament Team)
    • Antonio Leonardi-Cattolica (Freshman)
    • Matt Malejko (Junior)
    • Bhrett McCabe (Sophomore)
    • Jeff Naquin (Sophomore)
    • Ronnie Rantz (Junior)
    • Trey Rutledge (Junior) (Drafted 540th overall in the 19th round by the Cincinnati Reds)
    • Henri Saunders (Senior)
    • Scott Schultz (Sophomore)
    • Mike Sirotka (Senior) (CWS All-Tournament Team) (Drafted 425th overall in the 15th round by the Chicago White Sox)
    • Sean Teague (Sophomore)
    • Brian Winders (Freshman)
  • Outfield
    • Kevin Ainsworth (Freshman)
    • Harry Berrios (Junior) (Drafted 231st overall in the eighth round by the Baltimore Orioles)
    • Jim Greely (Senior) (CWS All-Tournament Team)
    • Ryan Huffman (Freshman)
    • Armando Rios (Senior) (CWS All-Tournament Team)
    • Mark Stocco (Junior)

Minus a couple assistant coaching changes, Skip Bertman again had another solid coaching staff assembled as they helped guide this team to a second title:

  • Head Coach
    • Skip Bertman - 10th season at LSU
  • Assistant Coaches
    • Beetle Bailey 6th season at LSU
    • Smoke Laval - 10th season at LSU
    • Mike Bianco - 1st season at LSU
    • Rick Smith - 1st season at LSU
    • Dan Canevari - 3rd season at LSU

Walking Off into a Dynasty (1996)
A College World Series exit at the hands of Fullerton in 1994 and a regional loss to Rice in 1995 would pave the way for arguably LSU's most memorable of championship runs.

Getting to the Postseason
Sharing their 11th SEC Conference Championship due to a three-way tie with Florida and Alabama, the Tigers went 43-13 (20-10 SEC) in the regular season and continued to stay at No. 1 in the polls. In the SEC Tournament, LSU won their opening game over Tennessee before consecutive losses to Florida and Kentucky knocked them out of the tournament. Holding a share of the regular season title, however, would again guarantee that the Tigers would host a regional.

South II Regional in Baton Rouge
LSU began their postseason with an 8-5 win over Austin Peay and a narrow 7-6 victory over UNLV. In their final two games of the regional, the Tiger offense was on another level of production. They shellacked New Orleans 17-4 in the semifinals and, despite giving up 13 runs, beat the ever-loving daylights out of Georgia Tech by a score of 29-13.

College World Series
What good would an LSU title run be without another meeting with Wichita State in Omaha? Taking on the Shockers at the beginning of the College World Series this time, the Tigers edged out a 9-8 victory. Next would be their old rival Florida, who had beaten LSU in all four meetings this season. However, three of those wins came in Gainesville.

In Baton Rouge North, the tables were turned as the Tigers finally broke through and beat the Gators 9-4. In the semifinals, LSU got a rematch with Florida and again bested their rival by a score of 2-1 to reach their third national championship game in six years.

Their opponent would be another Florida-based school in the Miami Hurricanes. With two titles of their own in the early-to-mid 80's, the 'Canes were no pushover opponent. In what became known as one of the greatest games in college baseball history, LSU found themselves trailing 8-7 entering the bottom of the ninth inning.

With two outs and the tying run on third base, junior Warren Morris was due up to bat in the nine-hole. The left-hander wasted no time and jumped on a first-pitch breaking ball. The ball jumped off the bat of Morris and took off towards right field. It kept going and going and going and... it was gone!!! 

LSU had just won their third national championship in program history on a miraculous walk-off home run from their nine-hole hitter! Rosenblatt Stadium erupted as Morris ran around the bases and his exuberant teammates mobbed him when he touched home. It was his first home run of the season and had just barely cleared the wall to give the Tigers the improbable come-from-behind victory.

The LSU baseball dynasty was alive and well and for the second time the Tigers had gone a perfect 8-0 in the NCAA Tournament.

Morris celebrates the biggest home run of his baseball career.

Campus Legends
With a few of the players from the '93 team sprinkled in, here are the Tigers who made the school's third national championship dream a reality:
  • Catchers
    • Brad Cresse (Freshman)
    • Conan Horton (Junior)
    • Tim Lanier (Senior) (CWS All-Tournament Team) (Drafted 290th overall in the 10th round by the San Diego Padres)
    • Kevin Ward (Senior)

Again with different assistants at his side, Skip Bertman and his staff did what they needed to orchestrate another championship:

  • Head Coach
    • Skip Bertman - 13th season at LSU
  • Assistant Coaches
    • Mike Bianco - 4th season at LSU
    • Dan Canevari - 6th season at LSU
    • Jim Schwanke - 1st season at LSU
    • Daniel Tomlin - 1st season at LSU

Back-To-Back (1997)
Fresh off a historic championship, LSU had eyes on a repeat with many players from the '96 team returning.

Getting to the Postseason
The Tigers were the top team in the land and secured back-to-back SEC Championships with a 45-11 (22-7) mark in the regular season. As had been the case in two of their three title runs, the top-seeded Tigers lost the SEC Tournament as they fell to the No. 2 seeded Alabama Crimson Tide in the final. This had been the fifth meeting between these two schools during the year, and the Tide held a 3-2 advantage.

Regardless of another SEC Tournament loss, LSU was again a host for regional action.

South I Regional in Baton Rouge
LSU got off to a hot start on their title defense as they smacked both UNC Greensboro and Oklahoma 14-0 and 14-3, respectively. Like the 1993 squad, the Tigers hit a road block as South Alabama handed them an 11-5 defeat in the semifinals.

Needing to show the resiliency that won them the title in the previous season, the Tigers outlasted Long Beach State 14-7 in an 11-inning elimination game. The Tigers put up seven runs in the top of the 11th to keep their season alive.

In their rematch with South Alabama in the regional finals, neither game was close as the Tigers smoked the Jaguars 14-4 and 15-4 in both contests.

College World Series
In their return to Omaha, LSU inched past Rice with a 5-4 win in the first round. Next was Stanford, who LSU easily dispatched with a 10-5 victory. When the Cardinal came back around after getting out of the loser's bracket, the Tigers were again victorious as they won 13-9 to play in their second straight national championship game.

Fittingly, the title game would be a rematch of the SEC Championship as arch rival Alabama reached their second ever national championship. In their sixth contest of the season, LSU won the game that mattered as they smacked the Tide by a score of 13-6 to both repeat and claim their fourth national championship in seven years! LSU also set a new school mark for postseason wins as they went 9-1 in the NCAA Tournament.

Twice is nice as the Tigers celebrate their repeat.

Campus Legends
For many on the '97 squad, this would be their second national championship. Here is the final LSU roster that helped cement one incredible dynasty:
  • Pitchers
    • Kurt Ainsworth (Freshman)
    • Jason Albritton (Sophomore)
    • Eric Berthelot (Senior)
    • Matt Colvin (Freshman)
    • Patrick Coogan (Junior) (Drafted 104th overall in the third round by the St. Louis Cardinals)
    • Chris Demouy (Junior)
    • Jake Esteves (Junior)
    • Dan Guillory (Sophomore)
    • Jeff Harris (Junior)
    • Cody Hartshorn (Freshman)
    • David Hughes (Freshman)
    • Sonny Knoll (Freshman)
    • Antonio Leonardi-Cattolica (Senior)
    • Joey Painich (Senior)
    • Kevin Shipp (Senior) (Drafted 836th overall in the 33rd round by the Philadelphia Phillies)
    • Doug Thompson (Junior)
    • Jeremy Tyson (Senior)
  • Infield
    • Blair Barbier (Freshman)
    • John Blancher (Freshman)
    • Christian Bourgeois (Freshman)
    • Casey Cuntz (Junior) (Drafted 323rd overall in the 10th round by the Arizona Diamondbacks)
    • Mike Daley (Freshman)
    • Brian Daugherty (Senior)
    • Eddy Furniss (Junior) (CWS All-Tournament Team)
    • Danny Higgins (Junior)
    • Brandon Larson (Junior) (Most Outstanding Player/CWS All-Tournament Team) (Drafted 14th overall in the first round by the Cincinnati Reds)
    • Jeff Lipari (Freshman)
    • Trey McClure (Sophomore)
    • Keith Polozola (Senior)
    • Johnnie Thibodeaux (Freshman)
    • Drew Topham (Freshman)
  • Outfield
    • Bryon Bennett (Sophomore)
    • Tom Bernhardt (Senior) (CWS All-Tournament Team) (Drafted 1,348th overall in the 46th round by the Chicago Cubs)
    • Wes Davis (Junior)
    • Cedrick Harris (Junior)
    • Mike Koerner (Junior) (CWS All-Tournament Team) (Drafted 335th overall in the 11th round by the St. Louis Cardinals)
    • Antoine Simon (Freshman)
    • Jeremy Witten (Freshman)

Keeping the exact same staff as last year, it is no wonder that Skip Bertman and company were able to repeat:

  • Head Coach
    • Skip Bertman - 14th season at LSU
  • Assistant Coaches
    • Mike Bianco - 5th season at LSU
    • Dan Canevari - 7th season at LSU
    • Jim Schwanke - 2nd season at LSU
    • Daniel Tomlin - 2nd season at LSU

Lasting Legacy
Four titles in seven College World Series trips during the 1990's is mind-blowing. What LSU accomplished help set the high standards that the program holds its players to day-in and day-out. Here are some other interesting notes about the Tigers' success in Omaha:

  • LSU is one of 13 schools to go undefeated in the College World Series. They did it thrice in the 1991, 1996, and 1997 championship runs.
  • LSU became just the fourth school (Texas, USC, Stanford) to win back-to-back titles.
  • LSU represented the SEC well as they were the second team from the conference (Georgia) to ever win a title.

The Aftermath
LSU's winning ways would not vanish after their title in 1997. The Tigers would make their final College World Series trip of the decade in 1998, where they would fall apart in the semifinals despite winning their first two games.

This would not stymie the program, however, as LSU would win a fifth title under Skip Bertman in 2000 (against Stanford) and then a sixth under Paul Mainieri in 2009 (against Texas). Their bid at a seventh came short when they lost in two games to the Florida Gators in the 2017 College World Series Finals.

Since the conclusion of the 90's, LSU has made it to Omaha eight times and remains a perennial favorite to reach Baton Rouge North nearly every year.

Final Takeaway
It is now the year 2018 and there has still yet to be any replication of what these LSU teams pulled off in the 90's. Some teams (Oregon State and South Carolina) have come close, but no one has been able to maintain the championship consistency that was present in this era of LSU baseball. Skip Bertman and his 90's teams put LSU on the map for college baseball. For Tiger fans, all they had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride.



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