By Tyler Hotz, Louisiana Tech Assistant Director of Athletic Communications
RUSTON – Six hundred and fifty-eight days ago was the final time Louisiana Tech’s baseball team played a game on campus. A walk-off homer from now super senior Hunter Wells marked the final crack of the bat in the old facility.
Almost 22 months later, the Bulldogs are back, and pings of the bat, pops of the glove and the laughter from 40 student-athletes returned to the corner of Tech Drive and Alabama Avenue.
Head coach Lane Burroughs, who said he couldn’t even sleep last night, and his 2021 squad opened the day with optional batting practice starting shortly after 1 p.m. Senior Steele Netterville, one of 12 Bulldogs remaining who played in the old stadium, smashed the first home run in J.C. Love Field at Pat Patterson Park on his fourth swing in BP.
“It felt like Christmas morning when we walked out,” Netterville said. “Honestly, I was shaking a little bit because I was so excited to be in this new ballpark.
“It was great to be out here with the guys.”
A “normal” day of practice continued in the waning afternoon hours on Tuesday, featuring fielding drills on the new FieldTurf surface and extra batting practice. Many Bulldogs tested their power to leave the yard in their new home.
Near the end of BP, senior Parker Bates made the catch of the day with a sensational grab in right center, robbing fellow senior Shemar Page right as the taller left-field fence cascades into a shorter right-field barrier.
“It’s a surreal feeling coming back out here,” Bates said. “It just felt like a nice homecoming for all of us.”
The Diamond Dogs capped off the special day with an intra-squad scrimmage. Just like its predecessor, displays of power and balls flying out of the yard were staples in the first “ballgame” in the new facility. Senior Manny Garcia delivered the first in-game home run in the first inning as his line drive sailed over the wall in left field.
“It feels good to be back out here in our new stadium,” Garcia said. “It feels surreal looking at this place and seeing what they’ve done.
“I just want to thank the workers and everybody that’s put everything in place for us to come out here.”
Despite the sounds of power tools and construction as work continues to complete the complex before Tech’s home opener on Feb. 26 against Southern, a small number of fans congregated in front of the dorms beyond the left-field wall to take in the action. Smoke rose from a grill beyond the fence, which is just another reminder of what makes the park’s location even more special.
“It feels like home to me,” Wells said. “We had some fans barbecuing out beyond left field.
“That was great to have some fans out there the first day. It feels like home, and we’re glad to be back.”
Midway through the evening’s scrimmage, a booming roar came from the railroad tracks behind right field. As a train chugged past the Love Shack, Burroughs and a few older members of his squad raised their hands in the shape of Tech’s recognizable Bulldog sign. All the sights and sounds, even the unexpected ones, added to the scene 658 days in the making.
“My favorite part of tonight was seeing the train going by in right field,” junior Philip Matulia said. “That was really cool to see.
“It’s fun being back out here on a college field.”
By the end of the scrimmage, seven balls sailed out of J.C. Love Field. Garcia and Netterville tagged two homers in the contest, including blasts that made contact with the dormitories in left field. Bryce Wallace, Matulia and Jackson Slaughter also recorded round-trippers of their own during Tuesday’s scrimmage.
As the players wrapped up the day with meetings with hitting coach Mitch Gaspard and pitching coach Mike Silva, the words of head coach Lane Burroughs reflected the mood of the day: “It’s been a long haul, but you did it.”
The Diamond Dogs will break in their new ballpark against another opponent when Tech opens a three-game series against Southern on Feb. 26. It’ll be 675 long, but worthwhile, days between the final swing and first pitch at the respective stadiums at the corner of Tech Drive and Alabama Avenue.
— Featured photo by Tom Morris