Poche looking forward to returning to Omaha

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, July 19, 2000

MICHAEL KIRAL / L’Observateur / July 19, 2000

LUTCHER – For some, the grass is greener on the other side.

For Jess Poche, the grass was greener at the College World Series at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha.

“It was more than what I expected when I got there,” Poche, a sophomore first baseman for the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, said of Rosenblatt. “The grass was greener. I had saw it on television and it wasawesome. But the first time I went on the field, it felt like my body shutdown for a few seconds.

“It was all a dream. I had dreamed about it as a kid and playing on thefield was a dream come true.”Making it to Omaha and winning two games at College World Series capped a dream season for Louisiana-Lafayette. The Ragin’ Cajuns set a schoolrecord with a 49-20 record and stunned No.1-ranked South Carolina in theSuper Regionals to make their first trip to the College World Series.

But once the Ragin’ Cajuns made it to Omaha, they were not content to just take in the sights.

“Before we left Lafayette, we all sat down and said we were happy to be there but we didn’t want to be happy with just getting there,” Poche said.

“We wanted to win the whole thing. We knew we could do it. It was just amatter of doing it.”Making its first appearance in Omaha, Louisiana-Lafayette faced a tough task in its opener against Stanford. The Cardinal had a 25-20 record in theCollege World Series going in, including national championships in 1987- 88. Stanford jumped out to a 4-0 lead and held on for a 6-4 victory.The loss dropped the Ragin’ Cajuns into an elimination game against San Jose State. This time, it was Louisiana-Lafayette jumping out to a 4-1lead on its way to a 6-3 victory.

“Stanford was kind of disappointing because we knew we had beaten ourselves,” Poche said. “But this team handled losing well. (Beating SanJose State) we were given another day and we still had things to prove and we could prove them. It gave us confidence. We knew all along we belongedthere and beating them, it backed up our assumption.”The win propelled Louisiana-Lafayette into another elimination game against Clemson. Heading into the bottom of the ninth trailing 4-3, itappeared the Ragin’ Cajuns were on the brink of heading home. But Pochesaid the team was confident it could come back.

“We knew it wasn’t over until the last out of the ninth inning,” Poche said.

“We didn’t get down. We wanted to put something together and at least tieit up and try to win it in the next inning.”Jarvis Larry led off the inning with a walk and was sacrificed to second by Scott Atwood. Rick Haydel then singled to left, sending Larry to third.Steven Feehan followed with a bunt that Clemson reliever Ryan Mottl fielded and threw past first base. Larry scored the tying run and Haydelcame around, sliding into the plate past the tag of catcher Brian Ellis for the winning run.””We kept alive another day in that green grass and unbelievable atmosphere,” Poche said.

By that time, Louisiana-Lafayette was becoming a favorite with the fans in Omaha.

“I think they found our name kind of catchy,” Poche said. “They seemed totake the underdog under their wings. They just liked us, the way we playedand the way we acted. It seemed like a home crowd. Everybody was pullingfor us and I think it helped a lot of people relax and settle down.”The come-from-behind win sent Louisiana-Lafayette into the Bracket One final round against Stanford again. The Ragin’ Cajuns jumped out to a 6-0lead in the top of the second before the Cardinal bats came alive for a 19- 9 victory. Louisiana-Lafayette would finish tied for third in the CollegeWorld Series with a 2-2 record, the best performance by a first-time team since Georgia Tech advanced to the championship game in 1994.

“It was disappointing,” Poche said. “In our eyes, we felt we could havebeaten them (Stanford) both times. It was disappointing, especially forthe seniors. But we had a great season. We had nothing to hang our headsabout. We just wanted to bring the fans a championship.”What the Ragin’ Cajuns brought their fans was a season to remember.

Louisiana-Lafayette won its first five games before losing at Southeastern Louisiana. The Ragin’ Cajuns then embarked on a 17-gamewinning streak, moving to as high as No. 4 in the country.Louisiana-Lafayette would struggle at the end of the season, losing 15 of its last 25 games, including three straight at home to the University of New Orleans to cost the Ragin’ Cajuns the Sun Belt Conference title.

Louisiana-Lafayette was then eliminated in the conference tournament.

Louisiana-Lafayette overcame the late season swoon to host a NCAA Regional at Tigue Moore Stadium. The Ragin’ Cajuns swept through theregional, defeating East carolina, 8-5, in the title game.

Louisiana-Lafayette was then sent to the Super Regionals at South Carolina against a Gamecock team that was 55-8 and ranked No. 1 in thecountry. South Carolina opened the best of three series with a 6-3 victory.But Louisiana-Lafayette had been in a similar situation before. In 1999,the Ragin’ Cajuns defeated Rice in the first game of the Super Regionals but then lost the next two.

“It was just like the year before,” Poche said. “We defeated Rice in thefirst game and we thought we were going to Omaha. We celebrated toomuch. And I think that’s what South Carolina did too.”Andy Gros, a freshman, kept the Ragin’ Cajuns alive, holding the gamecocks to four hits in a 7-1 victory in game two.

“(Head Coach Tony) Robichaux had pitched him in tough situations all year and prepared him for that game,” Poche said of Gros. “He didn’t pitch likea freshman. He pitched like a senior and gave us a boost.”With Omaha on the line, the Ragin’ Cajuns took advantage of that boost to defeat South Carolina. 3-2.”The team never laid down all season,” Poche said. “We had to haveconfidence in ourselves. The fans had been so great all season. We wantedto bring them a championship. When we lost the Sun Belt title, it wasdisappointing. When the regionals came around, we had a second season sowe gave it our all and it worked out. We gave them hope and something tobe proud of.”Poche started 54 of the Ragin’ Cajuns’ games in 2000, tying for third on the team with nine home runs to go with a .242 batting average and 29runs batted in. His best day came against South Alabama late in the seasonwhen he collected three hits, including two home runs. And as was statedon the ESPN telecast of the first Stanford game in the College World Series, he was also the player who kept the team loose.

“I guess it was true,” Poche said. “Game time, I’m pretty serious. But youhave to relax in order to have fun and you have to have fun in order to win.

I do my best to have everybody relaxed. If I have the opportunity to makethe team relaxed, I take it.”Poche said this was a team that stuck together. An example of thattogetherness occurred in Omaha when the whole team dyed their hair yellow. Poche said an assistant coach had agreed two years ago that if theteam made it to Omaha, he would dye his hair. When they got there thisyear and the coach fulfilled his promise, the entire team decided to join in.

“This team was so close,” Poche said. “We had great team chemistry. Notone guy didn’t like another. When one guy got down, another would pick himup. Everybody stuck together. We were one big family.”Poche is taking this summer off from baseball to relax and get into shape for next season.

“I want to work on different aspects of my game and try to make myself better,” Poche said. “Not playing this summer, I want to go back nextseason with real drive.”As for next season, Poche said he sees the Ragin’ Cajuns doing as well if not better than this season. Louisiana-Lafayette loses six of its ninestarters but Poche said the team has a great recruiting class coming in and that those returning knows what it takes to get to Omaha.

And even though he is taking a break from the game this summer, that experience of Omaha is not far from Poche’s mind.

“I was talking to one of my roommates the other day and we’re ready to get back out there right now. It’s just the love of the game, I guess. TheOmaha experience was really a great thing and I know we’re going back the next two seasons.”

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