Austin Nola is One of the Nation's Best Shortstops
Halfway through LSU's 2009 regular season, head coach Paul Mainieri knew he had to make some changes if the Tigers were going to make a run at the College World Series and a potential national championship.
After dropping a midweek game to in-state foe Nicholls State, LSU lost two of three at home to a struggling Tennessee squad and committed a season-high five errors in one contest. With the miscues piling up and the Tigers failing to turn double plays, Mainieri rolled the dice defensively and made a difficult decision.
He moved two of the Tigers' marquee players -- shortstop DJ LeMahieu and second baseman Ryan Schimpf -- to second and left field, respectively, in order to insert highly-touted but unproven freshman Austin Nola at short.
Nola, a local product from Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, remembers being a bit surprised when Mainieri approached him about the decision.
"I never really played that much," Nola said. "I got one start that whole year just to kind of see how things would go, but DJ was the guy (at shortstop) from Day 1.
"After we lost two out of three to Tennessee, he (Mainieri) came to me all of a sudden and told me we're going to make a move. He said, 'I'm going to let you play short for the next two games and see how you do from there. If you do well, we'll keep going, and if not, we'll make some more changes there.'"
While many freshmen would find the task of holding down one of the most challenging defensive positions for a national title contender overwhelming, Nola wasn't fazed much by the opportunity and credits Mainieri for keeping his mind at ease.
"I definitely felt pressure," Nola explained. "But on the other hand, I said to myself, 'What is there to lose? I will just go out there and help my team win and do whatever it takes. If it doesn't work out, then that's the way it was supposed to be, and if it does, then alright.'
"He took a lot of pressure off of me. He just told me to go out there and play good defense, don't worry about the bat and play hard."
The move paid immediate dividends in the squad's first game under Mainieri's new defensive strategy as Nola made several stellar plays at short and helped turn three ground ball double plays in a win over Southeastern Louisiana.
He started every game at short from that point forward, solidifying the Tigers' defensive infield on their way to their sixth national championship. The team went 28-5 with Nola as its starting shortstop, and the freshman helped turn 15 double plays.
"Austin Nola is inordinately skilled as a shortstop," Mainieri said that season. "I think he can be one of the very best defensive shortstops around.
"I thought we could upgrade our infield defense by having a little bit more range and a chance to turn some double plays by making this move. It was a tough decision, but when you have great kids, then you can make moves that strengthen your team."
While Nola stood out defensively, he was still developing at the plate and struggled at times in that aspect of his game as a freshman. However, he made tremendous strides in the batter's box in his sophomore season, improving his batting average from .240 to .320 in a one-year span and evolving into a complete player.
"I would attribute that to my mental approach," Nola said. "I knew I had the ability to hit, but it really came down to competing because for some reason I always thought you had to have the best swing or be the strongest. But, in the end college baseball is not about having the best. It's about going out there and competing.
"I put too much pressure on myself to try to make my swing great, but all I had to do was go down there and compete, and that's what I learned."
LSU is off to another great start in 2011, and Nola is a big reason why as the junior is one of four Tigers who possessed an on-base plus slugging percentage over 1.000 through the first nine games while continuing to provide stellar defense up the middle.
However, he also recognizes that every season is a marathon with ups and downs throughout, and each game must be taken in stride.
"We always stress every game that every day is a new day, and no matter what happens the day before we have to put it behind us," Nola said. "Going out there and playing as well as we have, we understand that it's good for us. We learned a little about ourselves, but we know we have to put that behind us and turn the page."