Feb. 17, 2010

By Douglas Kroll

A tour of the White House. Dinner at the Governor’s Mansion. Riding in a Mardi Gras float. Being the Grand Marshal of countless parades.

It wasn’t a typical offseason for LSU head coach Paul Mainieri. Not in the least.

But after winning his first national championship as a head coach in a town and state that loves their Tigers, it tends to happen.

Days before Mainieri and his 2010 edition of the Purple and Gold hit the diamond against Centenary, he was on his way back from New Orleans with a tired voice. It was one of the final events of a jam packed offseason, having just joined fellow champion New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton on Monday night as Celebrity Monarchs in the Krewe of Orpheus parade.

What a way to start 2010.

“This offseason was a lot different,” Mainieri said. “It was an exciting time. We spent a lot of time doing a bunch of public appearances. My wife and I got to help out doing a lot of different causes which winning a championship, allowed us to do.”

That’s all behind him now. And so is that dramatic 2009 national championship. Sometimes getting that across to a team can be one of the toughest things for a coach. Curing the inevitable championship hangover.

Enter Blake Dean.

The hulking senior passed up on the pros, after being drafted in the 10th Round by the Minnesota Twins. Instead, he’s exactly what Mainieri needs.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve told my coaches that I feel more confident having Blake Dean around here,” Mainieri said. “It seems like every time I’ve had a guy come back for his senior season [after passing on the draft], something really good has happened. Louis Coleman was like that last year and we won a title. Aaron Heilman at Notre Dame came back and we became No. 1 that year.”

While he’ll be counted on for bringing those immeasurable leadership skills to the dugout, his production at the plate will be just as important.

The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Crestview, Fla. native is the nation’s active career leader in hits (245), home runs (44), RBI (190), and total bases (437).

Mainieri counting on a big year from Dean is an understatement. Especially when you consider the bats that won’t be in the starting lineup on Friday at Alex Box Stadium that were in it the last time they took the field in Omaha.

Gone are Jared Mitchell, D.J. LeMahieu, Ryan Schimpf and Sean Ochinko. Names that became household-variety, thanks to being four of the five best bats on a team that hit .315 with 107 home runs in 2009.

A lot of teams wouldn’t be able to overcome such losses. But Mainieri is confident that they are just fine.

“We lost a lot of guys off last year’s team but we still have [Leon] Landry and [Tyler] Hanover,” Mainieri said. “I consider them starting players with all of the games they played last year. You don’t feel like we have enormous voids. We might not be as young as you’d think we are.”

Add to the mix, CF Mikie Mahtook, who became an LSU hero during last year’s postseason run, and junior college transfer Trey Watkins from LSU-Eunice (who will bat leadoff and play LF). All of a sudden, the lineup doesn’t look so depleted.

That leadership thing can be overrated. But everyone saw it in No. 1 starter Louis Coleman a year ago. He mentored the likes of junior Anthony Ranaudo, who now becomes the No. 1 on the staff. Another junior college transfer from LSU-Eunice will also be a factor, Joey Bourgeois.

So, can this group of LSU Tigers accomplish what the ’09 version did? Sure they can. Will they? Well, ask Mainieri about his team’s schedule and he’s convinced this squad will be tested early and often, despite what some critics say about the non-conference portion of it.

“I’m hoping [Kansas’ Tony Thompson] is back before we play them,” he said. “I’ve heard real good things about the Jayhawks. We want to play a team like that before SEC play, and the last time they came to Baton Rouge, they swept LSU in 2003. So that won’t be easy and is gonna be a great challenge. I really think our schedule is very underrated. Even opening with Centenary, I’ve read that many people believe they will chase Oral Roberts in their league. William & Mary had a great team a couple years ago. I’ve seen Brown has the best pitcher in the Ivy League.”

Playing 20 of its first 21 games in the friendly confines of Alex Box Stadium will definitely help things. But when it comes to that daunting ten weekend stretch that is SEC play, anything is possible.

“This is going to be my fourth year in the league and every year people ask me ‘Who is the team to beat in the SEC?,’ and I always say that it’s an impossible question to answer,” Mainieri said. “There are 11 great ballclubs in the league, we don’t play South Carolina this year, but those 30 games are absolute challenges. You really do need to bring your ‘A’ game every game. Every series, you are told that it’s a big one. One series after the other.”

Mainieri likened it to the Big East men’s basketball schedule, where every night there’s another challenge staring you in the face.

There is one thing that this Tigers team definitely has; it’s the confidence to know they can do it again.

After all, another trip to the White House and dinner at the Governor’s Mansion could be just another few months away.

But only if one of the best men in the game is crowned King on a hot June night in Omaha, first.