You could find a UNO flavor at the Super Regionalsby J.W. Miller on 06/13/17
Today’s quiz: Who was Miller pulling for the hardest during this weekend’s NCAA baseball Super Regionals? Of course, Kentucky is the logical choice for reasons well known to regular readers of this space. Or maybe even LSU, the six-time national champion whose baseball program is managed by good-guy Paul Manieri, one of Ron Maestri’s former UNO players. Good guesses, but wrong. I was pulling hardest for Wake Forest, whose coach is Tom Walter, the best hire I ever made while I was AD at UNO.
I watched as Wake and Florida were tied at 1-1 through interminable weather delays on Friday until the Gators pushed across a two-out run in the 11th inning for the win. I was in front of the TV again Monday, watching Wake resume a game they led 5-4 when it was suspended Sunday by weather. On Monday, Florida tied the score and then loaded the bases in the ninth but Wake stiffened and a walk-off two-run homer in the 11th gave the Deacons one more chance. Alas, in the afternoon match, Wake fell behind 1-0 in the second inning, and another 3-hour rain delay dampened the Deacon bats, in a 3-0 loss.
It was disappointing for those who remember Walter’s years at UNO, but the romantics among us could definitely find a UNO flavor at the Super Regionals. The ability of smaller schools to match up with the big boys should give hope to Blake Dean’s current group of Privateers. Unlike NCAA football or basketball, which is ruled by the same teams every year, NCAA baseball is an island of opportunity for programs that do not have cash ladled out as members of big-money conferences.
I truly hoped teams like Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton, Sam Houston State, Missouri State and Davidson would win, although only Fullerton made it to this week's CWS. Fullerton is the Gonzaga of baseball, a smaller school in a smallish conference, but with a great tradition in their sport. Kind of like UNO in the 1980’s. Fullerton won NCAA titles in 2004, 1995, 1984 and 1979, and small schools still can win it all, like Coastal Carolina last year.
There was even a UNO twist in the fact that Wake Forest was playing Florida. The Gators’ coach, Kevin O’Sullivan, was also in the mix when I hired Walter in 2004. He came to New Orleans for an interview, and I liked the then-assistant at Clemson, but I liked Walter’s experience as a head coach, at George Washington. Another of Walter’s selling points was a booklet he had prepared that was titled “Six Years to Omaha.” He outlined in detail how he would build a program both athletically and academically that could make it to the College World Series in six years.
He might have met that deadline at UNO had that troublesome rainstorm on August 29, 2005, not interfered with so many of our lives. In the aftermath, I met Walter and his players at the Baton Rouge airport when they were flying to Las Cruces to resume classes – and baseball - at New Mexico State. Not all the players Walter had recruited showed up, still beset by questions about the UNO program and the university. Two who did were Johnny Giavotella and Joey Butler who became the heart and soul of Walter’s two NCAA teams at UNO in 2007-08 and are still playing.
Walter moved on to Wake Forest in 2010, but his most notable achievement was not on the field. Days before the 2011 season opener Walter selflessly donated a kidney to outfielder Kevin Jordan, who was diagnosed with a serious kidney disease and needed a transplant. Finding a match was difficult because of Jordan’s uncommon blood type, but when Walter found out he had the same type, he gave Jordan one of his own kidneys and an opportunity at a new life. That’s the kind of person Tom Walter is.
I’m sorry he didn’t get to Omaha this year, but maybe in the near future he’ll be there, and wouldn’t it be a twist if he were facing UNO? Hey, stranger things have happened! This is college baseball.