A deep blast to right field at the University of New Orleans’ picturesque Maestri Field has a narrow chance of caroming loudly off a light stanchion looming just beyond the outfield wall. If it travels 15 feet to the right, its journey might end with a deadened thud off the advertisements above the outfield fence. Should it miss both obstacles, it could plug in the silt-laden soil short of Lake Ponchartrain.
“The lake’s not even a couple of hundred yards behind the wall out there. It’s always a strong wind, it always gusts. So the wind is a game changer, if it’s blowing in, you will not see a ball leave this ballpark, it just does not happen. If it’s blowing out, it’s a launching pad,” said first-year UNO head coach and former LSU standout Blake Dean.
His squad is heading into its third season in the Southland Conference — perennially one of college baseball’s toughest — and will turn to their young head coach to lead by example.
Dean, 27, graduated from LSU in 2010 after an All-American career that included a 2009 College World Series title with the Tigers. After a two-year pro stint in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ organization, he migrated back to the college ranks, this time as a coach. In 2014 he joined the UNO staff and after the 2015 season was named the head coach in the months following the retirement of Ron Maestri. Maestri concluded his second rotation as the Privateers’ top man at the field named in his honor, only after solidifying the Privateers permanence as a conference-aligned Division I program.
“It’s an honor for me to take this job. I think it’s a great opportunity for a young coach to come in and take over a program like this,” said Dean of being named the Privateers’ head coach. “Coach Maestri came in for two years and got this place back on the ground, and got it going again. I anticipate picking up right where he left off, and to make him proud and move this thing forward.”
Dean’s relative youth and recent history within Louisiana will give a boost to his recruiting efforts.
“Most of these guys can remember when I played at LSU, so I think that gives me an edge; that gives me an in with those guys,” said Dean after being named head coach. He knows that if he can keep the local talent in the city, he’ll bolster the Privateers substantially. “I want to get the New Orleans guys to come back to UNO,” said Dean.
To that end, Dean has added two area freshman from nearby Jesuit High School, first baseman Scott Crabtree and 6-5, 220-pound right-handed pitcher, Myles Blunt. Crabtree was an All-District selection while Blunt was 6-1 with a 0.68 ERA in his last year at Jesuit. Both players committed to UNO while Dean was still an assistant, showing that both he and Maestri had begun upping their recruiting efforts in the New Orleans area. They will continue.
Dean also added his younger brother, Dakota, to the roster in the offseason. The younger Dean will play outfield and essentially wherever else needed for the Privateers to get his bat in the lineup. In 2015 he was a member of the junior college national championship team at Northwest Florida State College. “He’s probably a three-hole guy (N0. 3 hitter) for us and will be a leader. He runs everything out and I’ve not seen anyone work harder,” said the head coach of his brother.
The Privateers were a NCAA Division I independent prior to joining the Southland in 2014. UNO’s best year in its recent past was a 43-21 campaign in 2008. That season they beat LSU for the second straight year, and advanced to the Sun Belt tournament finals. They also received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, and notched an 18-5 victory over Texas Southern before bowing out in the Baton Rouge Regional.
UNO finished last in the 13-team Southland in 2015 and Dean has a straightforward approach to get the Privateers climbing the conference ranks. “We will work harder than any other team in the Southland conference, I do promise you that,” said Dean at the time of his hire.
Dean is reminiscent of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s front office executive and minority owner, when he expands on his plans for the Privateers. “It’s going to be a process, there’s going to be some patience involved. But we’re capable of doing it and I’ll go out and find guys that are able to make it work.”
That process has already quietly begun. The Privateers have improved the past two seasons while vastly upgrading their schedule by playing in the Southland. As a student of the game, Dean knows his park and despite his propensity for the long ball as an undergrad, he knows what will help him win.
“We’ve got the grass first and third base lines so we’ll bunt and move guys around,” he said. “And it’s a bomb to get the ball out in the power alleys, especially with the prevailing wind. So we’ll build our team with those things in mind, and get up to speed with JUCO transfers quickly.”
Above: Senior Preston March will add punch to the Privateers 2016 offense. (Courtesy Ron O’ Rourke/UNO Athletics)
Middle: Right field at the University of New Orleans’ picturesque Maestri Field. (Courtesy Steve Dalmado/UNO Athletics)