Western Athletic Conference Preview

Fresno State should rule the WAC in `08


Feb. 14, 2008


 
 

By Eric Sorenson

Special to CSTV.com

 

ERIC SORENSON
Eric Sorenson is a regular contributor to CSTV.com, covering football, basketball & baseball.
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The Western Athletic Conference - spread across five time zones - has to deal with geographical isolation like nobody else. For 2008, they are going to eight weekends of conference play (each team will play two teams twice) and are now going to four-game weekends. Pitching depth and whoever stays injury-free will have a huge advantage in the chase for the ring. Fresno State is the overwhelming favorite by all the baseball rags, but the 'Dogs didn't exactly run away with things last year. I mean, this is a conference that had five teams win 34-plus games, so who knows. With a bigger target on Fresno's back, this could turn into the wild, wild WAC in short order.

 

Favorite: Fresno State

Contender: Louisiana Tech, Nevada

Darkhorse: Sacramento State

 

Fresno State (38-29, 17-7)

 

The Good News:

I told you Coach Batesole would get this program going again and sure enough, here we are. The arm staff is stocked, Collegiate Baseball put RHP Tanner Scheppers (7-5, 4.65, 94Ks) as its preseason Pitcher of the Year, but the WAC coaches named Clayton Allison (10-5, 4.50) as theirs. Reliever Jason Breckley (3-1, 4.58, 6svs) is also on the all-WAC team. But the best pitcher of all is probably LHP Justin Wilson (8-5, 3.19, 105Ks). Good night nurse! "Well-armed" is the phrase that comes to mind here.

 

The Bad News:

Wait... I'm not done with the "good news" yet. There is strength up the middle with C Danny Grubb (.296), 2B Eric Wetzel (.346, 36BBs), SS Todd Sandel (.289-7-33) and OF Steve Susdorf (.340-12-68), who is an All-American candidate. Oh, the "bad news?" Ummm... Somehow FSU's 2007 opponents had a better fielding percentage (.971 to the 'Dogs .968). That's about it.

 

The Intangible:

Must do it this year. Must.

 

All the players mentioned above are draftable juniors or seniors. So 2008 is THE year to break through. Who knows, maybe even the first trip to Omaha since 1991? But one soph to keep an eye on is SS Tommy Mendonca, a frosh All-American who hit .281 and committed just 12 errors all year.

 

Schedule Note:

It's been quite a while since the Johnny Quik Classic has been a tough field (one of my biggest complaints about Fresno's slate each year). This year, the Quik Classic will have New Mexico State, Portland, Indiana, Gonzaga and Utah as the opponents. Other than a trip to Long Beach State, the month of May looks pretty easy too.

 

Hawaii (34-25, 11-13)

 

The Good News:

RHP Matt Daly (5-2, 3.38) threw a no-hitter for Hyannis in the Cape Cod League this summer and should blossom this spring. Seven field starters are back, including three All-WAC returnees in CF Brandon Haislet (.335, 13SBs), 2B Jonathan Hee (.345) and DH Vinnie Catricala (.307). The arms staff threw at a wicked-good 3.97 pace and complements Daly with fellow righties Joshua Schneider (3-2, 3.58) and Jason Kramer (3-4, 3.75, 2svs).

 

The Bad News:

After a great run at the NCAA tournament in 2006, U of H fell back to the pack in '07. A 21-8 start quickly melted to a 13-17 finish, dooming their post-season hopes. Beyond Schneider, Kramer and Daly, new arms (preferably some lefties) need to come in and contribute right away, especially with four-game weekends.

 

The Intangible:

Besides the arms, it's the mitt.

 

If more pitchers step up and deliver, C Landon Hernandez will play a big part in handling the newbies. Committing only five errors all last season, the Rainbows' everyday backstop also hit .296 with four home runs. Hernandez also was a USA national team invitee. In other words, this guy's a block of granite behind the dish.

 

Schedule Note:

The U of H and Hawaii-Hilo take advantage of the NCAA's rule allowing teams that play on the islands to play an extra weekend during the regular season and will kick off the Division I season on February 15th with a three-game set.

 

Louisiana Tech (35-24, 14-10)

 

The Good News:

Despite Fresno's highly pubbed staff, it was Tech pitchers that held their opponents to a WAC-low .272. In fact, righties Dylan Moseley (7-4, 4.07) and Luke Burnett (5-8, 4.93) join lefty reliever Andrew Lorio (3-0, 4.62, 5svs) still toeing the rubber. The offense has some losses, but 1B Albie Goulder (.323-14-51) was an All-WAC selection and 2B Drew Bunting (.411) shows great upside once he hits the every day lineup.

 

The Bad News:

If there was ever a time when Tech was going to make the big leap upward, it was 2007. Now they'll go on without four of the top five hitters and fresh off a terrible 3-7 finish on their minds. That 0-2 WAC tourney performance was ugly, too.

 

The Intangible:

The star players need to play like star players.

 

Multi-talented Jericho Jones was a freshman All-American in 2006, but hit just .297-5-36 last year and his mound-work dipped to 2-2, 6.16. Also, CF extraordinaire Adam Cobb came up light as well, going .284-3-29 last year. These two have huge potential but need to get out of the rut for LT to become serious contenders.

 

Schedule Note:

Hopefully for the Techsters this will mean some good home cookin', but J.C. Love Field will host the WAC Tournament this coming May. We'll see if they can use that to their advantage.

 

Nevada (35-26, 15-9)

 

The Good News:

The Pack has a good nucleus coming back from the fifth-winningest team in school history. Four All-WAC candidates return, led by the WAC Frosh of the Year, 1B Shaun Kort (.392-6-50), senior Terry Walsh (368-5-30) and reliever Mario Rivera (5-1, 4.27, 5svs). They'll also get UTL Matt Bowman back, a key cog who missed '07 due to injury.

 

The Bad News:

Pack needs to avoid another 4-9 start and get cranking on the winning ways early. There were some significant losses, particularly P Ryan Rodriguez and his school record 32 wins, fellow starter Kyle Howe and steady 2B David Ciarlo. Opponents hit .298 off Nevada pitchers.

 

The Intangible:

Keep the momentum going.

 

The Pack ended two straight years of losing seasons and made it all the way to the WAC title game last season. That should spur renewed enthusiasm into the program, which should be reflected in the W column for 2008.

 

Schedule Note:

Ouch. This is tougher than it needs to be, but give 25-year head coach Gary Powers some points for bravery. Nevada will face UC Irvine, Stanford, Alabama, UC Riverside and Oregon State before WAC play starts.

 

New Mexico State (22-34, 6-18)

 

The Good News:

In the wind-tunnel that is Las Cruces, it's always good to have your top three hitters returning, which Coach Rocky Ward does in Joseph Scaperotta (.341-10-59), Marcus Quade (.339-8-53) and Joe Leghorn (.386). New SS Matt Lopez hit .289 at Oklahoma State last year. RHP Tyler Sturdevant (1-1, 6.75) returns after sitting out '07.

 

The Bad News:

The Aggies spent the month of May going 1-9, ruining any chance for a winning season. As is usually the case, the Ags pitching needs some patching up after allowing opponents to hit .318. Brian Gausman, the only starter with a sub-5.00 ERA, is gone.

 

The Intangible:

Ready for their close-up.

 

Through the school's Aggie Vision, six NMSU games will be televised during the upcoming season. And as you all know, any additional TV coverage of our beloved sport is a cool thing.

 

Schedule Note:

Scheduling is never an easy thing to do in geographically isolated Las Cruces, N.M. But the Ags get New Orleans, Ball State and UTPA to come to town for weekend games. They'll also play their last eight WAC games at home in May.

 

Sacramento State (17-40, 10-14)

 

The Good News:

For a team that won just 17 games, there's surprising star power on this team. 3B David Flores (.311, .972 fielding), SS Blake Crosby (.258, No. 10 prospect in California Collegiate League and brother of A's Bobby) and thunderstick 1B Gabe Jocobo (.363-14-44) are great infielders. OFs Ryan Blair (.316) and Tim Wheeler (.310-6-27, 13SBs) are also All-WAC prospects. The offense/defense is set.

 

The Bad News:

The team ERA of 6.86 was ugly. Two weekend starters return, Alvaro Orozco (5-6, 5.40) and Trevor York (1-10, 6.86) but their numbers - obviously - need improvement. Somebody needs to step up to replace saves leader Mitch Lively (8svs). The arm corps needs a major overhaul.

 

The Intangible:

Hitting? Check. Fielding? Check. Pitching?... check please!

 

Not to beat a dead horse, but longtime coach John Smith, or more specifically pitching coach Jim Barr, have their work cut out for them. This team will hit and field with anyone, but can the pitching put the clamps down? Ten J.C. or four-year transfers have joined the team for 2008, so it should get better.

 

Schedule Note:

Sac State didn't luck out too bad in the WAC scheduling department since the two teams they're playing twice were the teams that finished just a single game ahead of them in the standings - Hawai'i and San Jose State.

 

San Jose State (34-26, 11-13)

 

The Good News:

It's not often you get to say that SJSU was the most successful Northern California team last year. But they were. 3B Kyle Bellows (.343-6-47) is an All-WAC candidate. With some solid flingers like ERA leader Scott Sobchak (6-2, 3.86, 5svs), Brandon Hennessey (5-0, 5.06) and Spencer Snodgrass (2-2, 5.47), Coach Sam Piraro has good arms to build from.

 

The Bad News:

For coach Piraro's sake I wish I was lying about this, but nine of the top 10 hitters from last year's team are gone. Whoa. A couple of starting arms have hit the bricks too, though there are still a lot of pitchers still around because the workload was spread so much.

 

The Intangible:

J.C. heavy.

 

A full 19 of the 37 players listed on the Spartan roster were former J.C. transfers. Look for SS Tyler Heil of San Mateo College to make a formidable left side with Bellows. One high schooler to watch is C Bryson Rahier, the Braves 42nd round pick who came to San Jose instead.

 

Schedule Note:

With a bevy of new faces, this is a schedule that will allow the Spartans to ease into the season. Series with Utah, Santa Clara and the River City Classic with BYU, UC Davis and Portland will allow for some bonds to be forged before WAC play.

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