Major League Baseball’s Urban Invitational is now a staple as the annual spring opener on the University of New Orleans Privateers’ schedule. MLB built one if its Urban Youth Academies just across the street from UNO’s campus on Lake Pontchartrain, revamping the city's existing Wesley Barrow Stadium in the process.
This year the MLB Urban Invitational includes UNO, Prairie View A&M, UIC, Grambling and nearby Southern. Prairie View, Grambling, and Southern are all HBCUs. “It’s an outstanding opportunity to play HBCUs and to be televised,” said the Privateers’ assistant coach, Brett Stewart. “What MLB is doing with it is great as well – putting a lot of money into their RBI [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities] programs – makes it just a fun overall experience.”
Another staple that UNO hopes to return to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain is success on the diamond. After a dismal 2015 campaign that saw them go 14-40 and just 3-31 in the Southland, the Privateers under first-year coach Blake Dean went 31-26 last year and qualified for the conference’s postseason tournament. It was the most wins for the club since 2007.
On the Tuesday following their Feb. 17 opener, the Privateers return to their home at Maestri Field to face the LSU Tigers. The Tigers went 45-21 in 2016, falling in their Super Regional to ultimate national champion, Coastal Carolina. They’re projected to win the SEC in 2017.
“It’s kind of tough to get [LSU] Coach Mainieri to come down here,” said Dean, who starred for LSU and Mainieri from 2007-2010 as an undergraduate. “Anytime they’ll come down here, we’re not going to pass on it. It’s a good fit for us and we’re excited.”
The head coach projects New Jersey product Shawn Semple as his ace this spring. “He’ll be a junior this year and was 90-94 [mph] last fall for us,” said Dean. Injuries have sidelined the right-hander for part of each of his first two seasons with the Privateers.
Semple throws a knuckle-curveball, and last season experienced numbness in his middle finger that kept him from getting on top of the pitch – an especially dangerous predicament for an off-speed offering.
The opportunity to knock off the Tigers at home may tempt the head coach to hold his ace until they arrive in town. “We were talking about it – we have non-conference games those first three weekends,” said Dean. “Technically, we could throw whomever we want, but we’d prefer to throw our best three guys to open and keep them in that rotation because once you get off of it, it’s hard to get back on.”
Beyond Semple, the Privateers No. 2 man is Riley Hodges (4-4, 93.2 IP, 72K, 32BB). The two pitchers helped UNO make their dramatic turnaround in 2016 and bring more experience to the mound this season. It will come in handy as the Privateers included a late April trip to Austin to face Texas in their ambitious 2017 schedule.
Helping support the UNO pitching staff with his bat is the head coach’s younger brother, Dakota Dean. The senior arrived at the Lakefront as a transfer last year and quickly produced – Dean started all 57 games and drilled ten doubles, six triples, and five home runs. He also batted .321 and led the team with 45 RBIs. He’s expected to see time in left field and at first base in 2017.
The Privateers' leading hitter from last year, shortstop Aaron Palmer (.325), also returns. Senior Sam Capielano will begin his fourth season as the team’s starting second baseman. Palmer is the better hitter, Capielano the more consistent fielder, and the two combined will comprise one of the best middle infields in the ultra-competitive Southland Conference.
Both coaches pointed to outfield newcomer Tristan Clarke as a key offseason addition who will have an immediate impact this spring. The transfer from Eastern Oklahoma State is a junior and originally hails from Brampton, Ontario. “The kid is unbelievable. He hit about .515 in the fall with eight homers and 14 doubles. He can really play,” said Dean.
The outfield acreage at Maestri is vast, at 330 feet down the lines, 370 feet to the power alleys and a center field wall at 405 feet that bridges the gaps. “Defensively you need some outfielders that can go get it,” said Stewart. “They have to have some speed because our gaps are huge and there’s a lot of ground out here.”
Offensively, said Stewart, “We want guys that can hit, guys that can drive the ball. We have about seven guys who have the ability to leave the yard and hit a long ball.”
The Privateers’ 2016 success is helping to revive interest in a program that was once among the most consistent in Southern college baseball. “We had a camp the other day that we usually have 20-25 kids come to, this time we had 75-80. We had to close the registration sign-up because we were getting too many people,” said Dean.
The second-year head coach has a goal of 40 wins for his 2016 squad, and eyes a return trip to the Southland tournament and beyond. “You play thirty conference games. If you win two of three every weekend, that's 20, right there. Now here's the real question, how are you going to come up with another 20?” said Dean. “When you look at it that way, that’s how hard it is to do, but that’s what we have as our goal,” said Dean.
Tom Flynn is a freelance writer based in Frederick, Md. Follow him on Twitter at @tomflynn51.