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A new era for the Ospreys



It’s that time of year again. The grass is green. The sun is shining. And the North Florida baseball team has nearly completed another season playing America’s national pastime.  However, this season is a little different for the Ospreys. For the first time in program history, the North Florida baseball team is under the direction of a new head coach. In July 2010, Raymond “Smoke” Laval took the reigns of the UNF baseball team.


“I don’t know where the program will be in the next couple of years, but I know right now we are headed in the right direction,” Laval said. “I like what we have here. We have some great young kids who can play.”


Laval is a 30-year veteran of college coaching with more than 12 years of Division I experience as a head coach. He has directed teams to NCAA Regionals, NCAA Super Regionals and the pinnacle of the college baseball ranks, the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Neb.


Laval served as LSU’s head baseball coach for five seasons (2002-06), guiding the Tigers to two College World Series berths (2003 and 2004), two NCAA Super Regional titles, three NCAA Regional championships, one Southeastern Conference (SEC) title, two SEC division championships and two Top 10 finishes. Laval, the 2003 SEC Coach of the Year, finished his career at LSU with a 210-109-1 (.658) overall record and the highest winning percentage in SEC regular-season games. He coached two players to SEC Player of the Year accolades and had 23 players drafted by Major League clubs. Laval boasted a school-record 12 SEC Academic Honor Roll members in 2004 and 2005.


Following his tenure at LSU, Laval took a hiatus from college coaching to work as a scout for the Toronto Blue Jays. Despite working in the sport he loves, Laval’s heart was not in the professional game. 


“I am more into coaching for the kids,” he said. “I just don’t like the pro side of baseball. I had a number of opportunities with the Blue Jays to get back onto the field, but I really enjoy the on-the-field, day-to-day activities with the kids. Not only the baseball part, but I enjoy watching them grow up and trying to lead them the right way. That’s what I missed most. I am very thankful for the opportunity I have.”


In addition to coaching SEC power LSU, Laval served seven seasons (1994-00) as the head coach at the University of Louisiana-Monroe (ULM). Laval compiled a 241-159 (.603) mark as the head coach at ULM, guiding them to NCAA Regional appearances in 1995, 1999 and 2000. The 2000 club posted a 41-22 mark en route to the Southland Conference title, tying the ULM record for wins. Laval, the 1999 Southland Conference Coach of the Year, also led ULM to the 1999 regular-season title and to the 1995 conference tournament crown. He was voted the 1995 Louisiana Coach of the Year by the Louisiana Sportswriters Association.


Laval said he sees many similarities between North Florida and Louisiana-Monroe. 


“There is a lot of talent here,” Laval said. “We can recruit a lot of talent, but we have to get the name out there and get people thinking along the same lines and that is going to take time.” 


The 2010 North Florida baseball team became the first UNF team to be eligible for postseason play after sitting out four seasons (2006-09) due to NCAA Division I reclassification rules, despite qualifying for the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament each year. In mid-May 2010, the Ospreys claimed a conference series over Stetson, 2-1, to secure a spot in the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament for the first time in school history. At the tournament, the Ospreys recorded their first A-Sun Tournament victory — a 13-2 win over No. 28 Florida Gulf Coast.


The transition to full Division I status brings many benefits to North Florida, but that doesn’t translate to instant success on the playing field. Laval knows the difficulties of competing at the highest level of college athletics. 


“It is very difficult because you have to earn your stripes every year,” said Laval. “Everybody has to take advantage of it and there are a lot of schools that have been Division I for 40 or 50 years and are still not considered in that upper echelon.  Year-in and year-out you have to get a little bit better and be able to compete on a day-to-day basis. We are trying to be able to compete more weekend-to-weekend and game-to-game.”


But for Laval, overall record isn’t important. “My goals have nothing to do with winning and losing,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I want to win and I want to win every game. However, for us [the team] to be successful, we have to keep getting better. The kids have to learn to compete against themselves and the game itself, not the other team. The goals are we have to get the right players in here to fit into my system. Some teams may just have more talent and be better than us. You lose those, but you can play well and win or you can play well and lose. You can play poorly and win or play poorly and lose. I would rather play as well as we can and not worry about the outcome.”


Despite not worrying about it, the outcome has been success so far for the North Florida baseball team. The team is playing well — winning games and, most importantly, having fun. Attendance is up nearly 8 percent from the 2010 home season and Laval said he expects things to only get better for North Florida baseball.


“So far I think the direction we are heading in is good and I don’t think it has a whole lot to do with just baseball,” he said. “The whole Athletics Department has taken a big step by moving to Division I. I think baseball can be the picture window of the house of Athletics. I think we can get on the map and get North Florida better known through the baseball program first. The direction is pretty good and the foundation has been laid for a while. We have to add on and we have to add on quickly.”


The foundation of UNF baseball is well established at the NAIA and NCAA Division II level. In its 23-year history, the North Florida baseball team has made five College World Series appearances, 16 postseason appearances and won 13 conference titles. In addition, UNF has one national player of the year, four regional pitchers of the year, four regional players of the year and earned 10 regional coach- of-the-year awards. North Florida boasts 24 All-Americans, 61 All-Region selections, 57 All-Conference honorees and 20 Conference All-Tournament picks. Off the field, the North Florida baseball team boasts 237 Academic All-Conference selections. 


Laval cannot predict the future for North Florida, but he feels the program is headed in the right direction. The road to Omaha is long — and winning the College World Series will not happen overnight — but with Smoke Laval at the helm, Osprey fans can rest assured the team is on the right path.