On the first day of the 4th Annual Southeastern Underclassman Shootout at Troy University, Denham Springs senior Noah Juan had a rather forgettable start.
The two-year starter at third base for the Yellow Jackets found himself on the bench of a star-studded 20-member Team Louisiana, which opened play in the six-team, round-robin event against Team Alabama.
Four days and four victories later, Juan and his teammates were celebrating a walk-off 7-6 victory over Team Mississippi for the tournament’s championship as Juan scored the winning run and was named the event’s Most Valuable Player.
“I was disappointed that I didn’t get the start right away,” Juan said. “I was hoping that I would get my chance and I wanted to make it count. I wanted to cheer the other guys on because I wanted to win. It didn’t matter if I was in the lineup. When I got my chance, I made the most of it.”
Juan, who primarily played second base for Team Louisiana, teamed with Denham Springs High teammate Dalton Diez on a club that was able to meld all of its talents in a short period of time into a championship-quality team.
Prior to the start of the tournament, the team hadn’t practiced together but stepped onto Troy University’s Riddle-Pace Field between June 25-27 and registered three one-run victories, including two of the walk-off variety.
“It was a lot of fun to go out there and compete,” Diez said.
Juan, who batted .636 with a .818 slugging percentage and .667 on-base percentage, said there was an immediate trust among a group of players who first showed up as strangers but departed as life-long friends and champions.
“The first game was the first time we played together,” he said. “It was a lot of great coaching. It was a great group of guys that bonded almost automatically. We all just played good and trusted each other to get the job done. We all knew we were put on the team for a certain reason and we all did our jobs.”
For Juan, it was a satisfying experience after his initial view when Louisiana and Alabama met in a rematch of last year’s tournament championship game, with Alabama emerging victorious.
Juan was inserted midway into the game as a designated hitter, where he went 1-for-2 and played second base.
Louisiana displayed its championship mettle early in the tournament, rallying from a 5-2 deficit after six innings. They scored four times in top of the seventh, and behind reliever Kyle Bartley kept Alabama scoreless in the bottom half of the frame for the win.
“Our coaches told us about it and we just came together saying, ‘we couldn’t let them beat us,’” Juan said of Alabama’s win over Louisiana in the 2018 title game. “They got ahead of us, but everybody trusted in each other. We all started hitting the ball better and then our pitchers did a heck of a job for us. We got some timely hits.
“We know guys from Louisiana, we play harder than anybody else from the south,” Juan said. “We just knew we had to show that we were better than these other teams. We didn’t want to start the week with a loss. We just came out fighting.”
When Louisiana faced Team Florida in its second game, Juan was penciled in the starting lineup at second base and batted clean-up.
He drove in a run in the first inning, went 2-for-2 with a double and reached base safely three times. Louisiana rallied from a 2-1 deficit with a pair of runs in the sixth and added another in the seventh for a 4-3 victory.
“When I got the start in the second game, I just wanted keep it going,” Juan said. “I had the approach that I was going to drive the ball hard, just get on base every time and that no one was going to beat me.”
It took a little longer, but Louisiana distanced itself from Team Kentucky with eight runs in the sixth inning for a 9-0 victory in the tournament’s third game.
Juan (2-3, 2 RBIs) singled in a run in the first inning and had a run-scoring double during Louisiana’s decisive sixth inning, setting the stage for a memorable championship showdown with Mississippi for the Gold Cup.
It meant an opportunity for Diez to take the mound, getting the start for Louisiana, who kept his team in a 1-1 deadlock after his three-inning allotment.
Diez, who threw 26 of 40 pitches for strikes, allowed two hits with no walks or strikeouts, serving as the first of five pitchers for Louisiana.
“It was kind of intimidating seeing all of their guys and all of the scouts in the stands,” Diez said. “I was going to go out there, do my thing and hopefully it worked out and it did. I did pretty good.”
The championship game lived up to its billing.
Louisiana led 1-0 and 5-2 after a four-run fifth inning before Mississippi rallied with three runs in the sixth to tie the game at 5-all and forced extra innings.
Mississippi added a run in the eight when Louisiana responded, including a single from Juan (2-4, 2 RBIs), that eventually led to a bases-loaded situation where a sacrifice fly produced the tying run.
Juan then scored the winning run after Grant Fontenot was hit on the top of his left shoulder by a pitch with the bases loaded, enabling Juan to jog the final 90 feet, emphatically stepping on home plate with his right foot and turning where he was embraced by a jubilant group of teammates.
“We knew we were going to win it we knew that last inning, that we were all bought in,” Juan said. “Scoring that winning run was awesome. It was just a feeling and something I’ll probably never forget.”
Juan also walked away with the tournament’s MVP honors, a distinction that perhaps seemed unlikely at the beginning of the event. Instead of moping on the bench, Juan remained a positive force, cheered on his teammates and when his opportunity finally arose, he delivered.
“I wouldn’t even call that one of his better series,” Diez said of Juan, who he estimated having been teammates with for 6-7 years during their baseball careers. “He goes up there every weekend and is spectacular. I think he was a little nervous, but after that he just kept rolling.”
Juan said it was a matter of believing in himself, and then going out and performing.
“Once I knew I could hang with those guys I was fine,” he said. “I said I was just going to give it my all every time. I thought I had a great weekend and apparently so did everybody else. Once they called my name (for the MVP) all of my teammates cheered for me as well as my coaches.
“(Tournament director) Barry Dean shook my hand and told me I had heck of a weekend and was glad that he got to watch me and that really meant a lot to me,” he said “Getting this experience and playing in that atmosphere and getting to meet all of those new guys, and knowing that we were playing for something bigger, it was great. I’ll never forget this experience.”