SoCal Style, Straight From Long Beach

Reveling in the glory of Southern California Baseball Media Day



 
 

Jan. 18, 2007

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

 



ERIC SORENSON

Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball. E-mail here!

"I'm still living with your ghost.

Lonely and dreaming of the west coast.

I don't want to be your down time.

I don't want to be your stupid game."

 

- Everclear "Santa Monica"

 

With all due respect to Everclear's talented lead singer/songwriter Art Alexakis, I'm not dreaming of the west coast, I'm living in it. And on Wednesday, I realized why it is still the coolest place to be in the college baseball landscape.

 

Thanks in large part to the brainstorming and hard work of Long Beach State Sports Information Director Niall Adler, the Southern California Baseball Media Day took on its fifth pre-season edition today at the Walter Pyramid on the Long Beach campus. It was Niall's vision five years ago to get all the coaches of the area's Division I teams in one place to talk about their teams and build excitement for the coming season.

 

Mission accomplished.

 

This is the one event that fills my post-holidays doldrums until that first pitch is thrown at the end of January. I'm sure you can't tell by reading this, but my grin goes ear-to-ear, boys and girls.

 

Along with CSTV's Tyler Hale, who flew in from the New York City office, I was asked to help out on some one-on-one interviews with some of the coaches and players of the 12 nearby Division I baseball schools. It was great to be a part of and I wouldn't miss the SoCal Media Day for the world. Tyler handled the player interviews and I went face-to-face with the great coaches that were in attendance.

 

All the footage shot by our camera crew today will be compiled into a 30-minute preview show that I'll be going to New York this weekend to shoot in-studio with Adam Zucker. So hopefully you'll see a lot of what these coaches had to say about their teams and what some of the players thoughts were as well.

 

Here are some of my favorite moments - some on-camera, some off-camera - of the coaches interviews, in the order they appeared.

 

UC-Santa Barbara's Bob Brontsema

The first thing coach Brontsema says to me prior to going on camera is, "Just don't ask me what I think of my team's chances this year." Cool, no problem. We go to sit down, the camera man says, "Speed." (which means we're rolling).

 

Me, biting my lip: "Coach, what do you think of your team's chances this year?"

Coach Brontsema: "We're going to be a lot better." (laughs)

 

He also went on to tell me about a small factor that I had forgotten about from last year's Gaucho team: two of his expected weekend mound starters, Steve Morlock and Michael Martin, got hurt in the pre-season last year and never touched the field. He'll have both of those guys back to work with this year. So look for improvement from a team that was decimated by injuries all last season.

 

UC-Riverside's Doug Smith

I asked him about his thoughts on being picked to finish second in the Big West and getting a No. 26 ranking in Baseball America's pre-season rankings. He came back with, "Well, it's nice. I'll admit that it's good for recruiting. But it's not very meaningful in the sense that we can't win an inter-squad game right now." (laughs)

 

The thing I like about the Highlanders is that two-thirds of their weekend rotation returns, led by ace James Simmons, and two of the top three relievers as well. In a year when Cal State Fullerton is in rebuilding (okay, reloading) mode, this could be the year for a Riverside-type team to make waves in the Big West.

 

When I told Coach Smith he was one of the better, more upbeat coaches to interview at the SoCal Media Day, he snapped back with, "This is baseball man, it's supposed to be fun, so you might as well laugh a little bit."

 

Watch for SS Jaime Pedroza, who hit .352 last year and Coach Smith calls "a very exciting and athletic player."

 

Long Beach State's Mike Weathers

The Beach didn't make the regionals last year, so off-camera I asked Coach Weathers if his scheduling philosophy of torturously playing anyone and everyone has changed at all. "No," he said. "We pride ourselves in that. I don't think I'll ever do anything different. Last year, the schedule probably hurt us, because we're always going to lose more than most good teams. That's just a fact."

 

The Dirtbags have six .300+ hitters back, including every part of their infield except for 3B Evan Longoria. But only three experienced pitchers come back. As usual, they'll rely heavily on some high-profile J.C. transfers.

 

Coach Weathers also sung the praises of UC-Riverside for the coming season. "UC-Riverside has a lot of great pitching coming back. After Wes Roemer (of Cal State Fullerton), James Simmons is the best pitcher in the Big West."

 

Cal State Fullerton's George Horton

While they were setting up the cameras and the microphones for Coach Horton, I asked him if he remembers saying to the press in Rosenblatt Stadium after getting eliminated from the College World Series last June, "I'll see you all here next year." He laughed, "Yeah, I do. What I didn't tell anybody was that I'll be on a committee back there this June, so I'll be there no matter what. Not sure yet if my team will be there."

 

Despite the roster turning over significantly the last two seasons, Coach Horton really sung the praises of the improvement of 3B Evan McArthur and catcher John Curtis. "Evan is a spectacular third baseman and has developed even more significantly since the end of last season. Curtis is a three-year starter and has really developed offensively, because he's crushing the ball right now. We haven't counted on his bat in the past, but he will be a key this year."

 

As I suspected, Coach Horton touched on the youth of this year's team. "We're not as deep as years past. We might have to rely on younger guys more than usual."

 

 

Cal Poly's Larry Lee

Last year he mentioned to me how it was important that his team starts to play more non-conference opponents from out of the region, to help build up the team's RPI number more effectively. "Last year, we played the 10th toughest schedule in the country. We play at Rice and home against Oregon State this year. But we're trying to play as many ACC and SEC teams as possible in the future. In 2008 we open at Alabama, Clemson's on our schedule and in '09 Rice comes out here to play us. Which is hard, to get people to come out here, because we don't have a major airport near us."

 

Coach alluded to 2007 as starting with "a brand new team." Surprisingly, the Mustangs have lost 12 players to the major league draft the last two years. It still hasn't parlayed into a post-season bid for Cal Poly yet. With all three starting pitchers and top closer gone, Coach Lee is right, this is a start-from-square-one team this year. But he also has some horses too, as his recruiting class was highly-regarded this past fall.

 

One player to keep a particular eye on will be true freshman SS Kyle Smith, who Coach Lee says without flinching, "Kyle will hit leadoff for us and will be an All American in the years to come."

 

USC's Chad Krueter

Probably the most surprising interview of the whole day. The new coach on the block stunned me with this opening comment, "For the first time in a long time at USC we're going to have a lot of depth in the pitching staff. We've had a lot of injuries the last few years and we've got everyone healthy now."

 

And of course, I asked about that wunderkind frosh Robert Stock, the catcher/pitcher who skipped his senior year of high school to enroll at USC. "We expect him to be an impact player, but he'll have some growing pains. He's been able to handle everything about college so far. He's very mature but very humble. We haven't had one worry about him. He will be my starting catcher and we'll use him on the mound a bit as well." `Nuf said. Now let's all sit and watch.

 

He also said to watch for 2B Matt Cusick, who tore up the Cape Cod League last summer, and "man-child" Lucas Duda, who had only hit a handful of home runs last year. But coach emphasized that they "tweaked his swing a little bit and in my experience, I'd say he's got more power than most big league guys now."

 

Coach mentioned that two frosh will probably be in the starting rotation in Brad Boxberger and Kevin Couture. Keep an eye on a great shortstop in Grant Green, who Krueter mentioned "will be a high draft pick in three years."

 

Cal State Northridge's Steve Rousey

Talking with Coach Rousey before the taping, I told him about the first Northridge game I ever went to after moving out here to Southern California, which was the '96 launching pad game where the Matadors set a Division I record with 13 home runs in a 29-14 win over Fresno State. (And you thought the '98 CWS title game between USC and Arizona State was bad?).

 

He mentioned that he wasn't on the CSUN staff at that time, but he heard that Jeff Weaver was eventually brought in out of the pen in that game. If anyone out there knows if that is true or not, drop me a line. I don't remember. I just recall the 150-mile per hour winds blowing out to straight center field that day helping to push every lazy pop fly into a lazy home run.

 

Unlike most years, CSUN enters 2007 with lots of seniors and experience. In this year's Big West title chase, that could translate to a good season for the Mats. All the infield starters and two of the outfielders will be seniors, led by 1B/team captain Jorge Andrade (.320) and SS Jon Sakurai (.295), who coach Rousey calls "a one-man highlight show who flies around the field and electrifies the team." (You've gotta love that description. Good job, Coach.)

 

UCLA's John Savage

I dig this guy. I like how Coach remembered a few of the details of our interview I did with him last year. "Hey Eric, you still live around here and bring your dog up to our park once in a while?" Yep and yep, Coach.

 

Quick to note the past two successful recruiting classes, Coach said they'll be "a very good offensive team" this season. Especially in the form of SS Brandon Crawford, 3B Jermaine Curtis and C Ryan Babineau, all sophomores.

 

When I asked if he fired the schedule-maker for having teams like Miami, Ole Miss, Winthrop, East Carolina and Cal State Fullerton in the pre-conference slate, Coach Savage responded with a laugh, "No, I haven't fired my wife yet." Nice.

 

The inside back cover of the UCLA press guide shows some of the former Bruin players that are in the bigs now and the best picture is of Oakland's Eric Byrnes colliding with Boston catcher Bill Haselman, who's mask is flying off but is still holding onto the ball. The picture is dated from 2003. Wonder if they sang "Sons of Westwood" together after that collision.

 

UC-Irvine's Dave Serrano

Serrano claimed right off the bat that "there's something special about this team that I haven't experienced before. We'll have some growing pains but by the end of the season we'll be very good."

 

I shook 2B Cody Cipriano's hand and this dude had a serious clamp. Strong arms, and according to Coach Serrano, a great whip of a bat too. He was voted the team MVP in '06 after hitting .354 and swiping 16 bases.

 

Serrano also claimed that OF Bryan Petersen "hasn't lived up to billing yet" (as witnessed by his .226 average last year) but was ready for a breakout season. Petersen went on to win the Alaska League Player of the Year award last summer and should be a high draft pick this coming June.

 

You also have to love that the Anteaters get back pitchers Blair Erickson and Steven Gorgen. Erickson is 10 saves shy of setting a Division I record for saves in a season (currently held by former USC hurler Jack Krawczyk) and Gorgen was named Freshman All-American by Collegiate Baseball last season.

 

 

San Diego's Rich Hill

Easily the most entertaining coach of the whole bunch. Easily. I asked him my first question and he hit the floor running on a 10-minute rant. Love this guy's enthusiasm and child-like glee in talking about his team.

 

This was actually the first time I'd had a chance to talk to Coach Hill and it was hard not to get fired up after this. "Eric Sorenson. Yeah! I read your stuff last year. You've got some great articles, man."

 

When I asked him what he expected from his team this year, he broke out with, "We don't talk about expectations in our program, Eric. We talk about peak performance."

 

Two peak performers on his list? Try his two-man wrecking crew of Freshman All-Americans Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski, who, in their second years of Division I baseball, should anchor a great pitching staff for the Toreros.

 

He also mentioned the usually tough schedule. "That's why I like reading your articles, man. You're talking about RPI and getting into the NCAA tournament. And we've got our usual murderer's row with Wake Forest, Virginia Commonwealth, Michigan and USC coming in. And we make a return trip to Texas too. But the highlight of our schedule is playing Oklahoma in Petco Park. They're honoring Tony Gwynn that night and hopefully we can help sell the park out."

 

I asked him about the fact that 2006 was the first at-large bid given to USD by the NCAA tournament committee and what that meant to the program. "It was huge. I was watching it at my in-laws house and when our name came up, it was total elation! It was only the second time the WCC got three teams in. I think it was great that the committee knew our name, because we did what we had to do, Eric. We swept Texas and won two-of-three at Houston. We got on airplanes and flew across the country to play teams. We were making a huge effort to increase our visibility to have the best RPI number possible. It was an awesome thing."

 

Whew! And this is only the tip of the iceberg on what he touched on. And I know, I know, he was quite the ego-boost to me too. I admit it.

 

Loyola Marymount's Frank Cruz

After Rich Hill, Coach Cruz had a hard act to follow, but being that LMU is the closest school to my house, I always have a soft spot for the Lions.

 

Coach was quick to focus on his two biggest summer stars on the squad, 2B Eric Farris and P Brad Meyers. "Eric Farris is a two-year starter and was a Cape Cod League All-Star and comes back with a wealth of experience. Brad Meyers, who took last summer off, was an All-Star and won the championship in the Cape Cod League with the Orleans Cardinals the year before."

 

I asked him how he compares some of the players in the West Coast Conference to the ones that he coached on Team USA in the summer of 2004. "I think it's all relevant. You see that we had three teams in the NCAA tournament last year and the quality of the players in our conference is going up. A player like Brad Meyers could've played on the team last year, but he rested his arm last summer instead. But I think we see the gap between our players and those players getting closer and closer."

 

Pepperdine's Steve Rodriguez

This is the heavy metal coach (he told me about that guilty pleasure last year at Media Day) that usually has the heavy artillery arms. And of all the players at the media day that were asked about which pitcher they feared facing the most this year, the name "Barry Enright" came up more than anybody else. Surprisingly, even more than Wes Roemer of Fullerton.

 

Pepperdine will have experience everywhere, especially in the infield (three starters back) and the outfield (two starters back). Replacing catcher Chad Tracy will be a big chore, but Coach Rodriguez says that two freshmen who "have been a joy to have on the team" will share duties in Trent Diedrich, from Fresno, and Travis Tartamella, a Devil Rays pick last June.

 

From looking at the Pepperdine media notes, there are a number of interesting names to watch for this year.

- Mark Tracy. Chad's brother. He's up for the 1B job along with Matt Aidem, a part-time starter last season.

- Infielder Hanson Street. The son of Texas quarterback James and brother of A's pitcher Huston.

- Infielder Joseph Evans. A two-time NAIA honorable mention All-American at Belleview University in Nebraska and comes to Malibu having stolen 91 bases in his career.

- Robert Dickmann. He only logged six appearances on the mound at UCLA last year, but Coach Rodriguez thinks he could become the Waves' Sunday starter.

 

To close this column, this year saw two notable absentees from the SoCal Media Day, Pacific's Ed Sprague didn't make it down from Stockton and San Diego State's Tony Gwynn was a no-show altogether, despite being scheduled to show up. Damn, I was going to ask Coach Gwynn to do his famous Ricky Henderson impersonation, too.

 

This should be another great year in Southern California college baseball. After being out at the Pyramid all day today, I just wish first pitch was here tomorrow.

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