Dec. 11, 2006
Fullerton, Calif. - The 2007 version of the Titan baseball team might need to overachieve to accomplish its goals, a theme not unfamiliar to Cal State Fullerton Baseball. The 1995 and 2004 squads are perfect examples of what can happen when you take unproven talent and challenge them with greatness. The 2007 group has a blank slate with which to work, with the option to paint their destiny any way they choose.
Eleventh-year Head Coach George Horton faces what could be one of his biggest challenges since taking over the program in 1997 - turning this year's young and raw talent into a viable contender at the national level. Armed with just a handful of experienced Titans, Horton will try to mold new faces and new staff with different responsibilities into a cohesive unit.
Sporting a new four-year contract that will keep him in pinstripes through the 2010 season, Horton's whereabouts will no longer be the topic of message board fodder.
"I am elated that the university wants to keep me. I am happy to be here at Cal State Fullerton. It's where I belong," said Horton
From an outsider's perspective, this year might be a "rebuilding period," a euphemism for "a down year" that Coach Horton isn't ready to buy into just yet.
"Understanding the challenges we face this year with the new personnel and having a young, inexperienced team, the realist in me says, `yeah, this could be a rebuilding year,' but we aren't going to hang our hat on that," Horton said. "Like always, we plan on winning the Big West Conference and getting back to Omaha to win another national championship.
"We aren't going to use youth and inexperience as an excuse. We're going to accept the challenge and turn this season into a reloading year instead of a rebuilding year."
Only time will tell.
Losing players like Justin Turner, Blake Davis, Danny Dorn, Brett Pill, Vinnie Pestano, Lauren Gagnier and Dustin Miller will not be reflected in the statistics alone. Statistics will come. It is the seasoned leadership of these former Titans that the coaching staff will miss this year.
With all the success the program has experienced over the years, Horton feels early on that this team might have a false sense of security.
"We're trying to teach them that they can't assume that just by putting on the uniform that, magically, good things will happen. Winning here doesn't just happen. A lot of players have worn the Titan uniform before them and have paid the price and worked hard to put the program in the position it is in today. Winning is in the details. And that is our challenge as a coaching staff, to teach those details."
With team success, comes personnel turnover, and for the second time in three seasons, there will be a new face in the Titan coaching staff. Over the summer, the Titans lost one of the nation's best young pitching coaches in Ted Silva, who left his post as the volunteer assistant coach for a paying gig at Fresno State.
"Teddy had a great two years here, and we're definitely going to miss him," Horton said of the former Titan hurler who managed the 2006 pitching staff that posted the nation's best ERA and the country's leader in wins in Lauren Gagnier, "but on the other side of that equation, to have the opportunity to have a guy like Bill Kernen come in and be our volunteer assistant is a real blessing for us."
Kernen is no stranger to Titan baseball, having served as former Fullerton skipper Augie Garrido's pitching coach from 1978-82, then again in 1987. He is also no stranger to success. As Cal State Northridge's head coach from 1989-1995, Kernen averaged over 34 wins a season and had a career .609 winning percentage. He will replace Silva both as the volunteer coach and as the pitching coach.
"So far he has been fantastic, performing well beyond my expectations," said Horton.
Another change the staff will undergo will be the switching of roles and responsibilities between Horton and long-time Assistant Coach Rick Vanderhook to get Horton back to the offensive side of the diamond. He said to outsiders it might look as if Vanderhook may have been relegated to the pitchers and catchers, but he feels quite the opposite.
"Quite frankly, I enjoy running the offense more. It isn't anything that Hook did or didn't do. It has everything to do with my desire to return to the offensive side of the game."
Horton will now completely run the offense and do it from the third base coaching box, a post Vanderhook has owned since 1991. The skipper will also take his first crack at managing the outfielders.
Horton commented, "To be honest, I'm feeling a little bit of pressure. I have to live up to the standards Rick has set for so many years. He was the finest outfield and third base coach in college baseball, so I've got some pretty big shoes to fill."
Vanderhook, in his 21st season with the Titans, will switch gears in 2007 and step away from the offense and work solely with the pitchers and catchers, something he hasn't done on a full-time basis since 1985. He will join Kernen, with whom he assisted at Cal State Northridge from 1989-1990, on the pitching side and will serve as the team's defensive coordinator. Vanderhook will also call the pitches from the dugout.
"This switch will be a test for us," Horton explained, "but I have no doubt that Rick and Bill will do a fabulous job with the pitching."
Third-year Assistant Coach/Recruiting Coordinator Jason Gill will continue his role as the infield coach and will likely take on most of the hitting instruction on a day-to-day basis. Both Baseball America and Collegiate Baseball ranked his 2007 recruiting class in the Top 10 in the nation. On paper, this is Gill's best effort in his three years of coordinating at Fullerton.
The performance of the 2006 Titan starting pitchers was a surprise to many. Lauren Gagnier, an unproven starter, led the nation with 14 victories. Dustin Miller came back after two injury-plagued seasons to go 12-1, and Wes Roemer dazzled with his pinpoint control, walking just seven batters all year.
This fall finds the Titans in a better position than that of a year ago. They have a legitimate Friday night starter in Roemer. The coaching staff was unsure about his resiliency and ability to lead a pitching staff as a sophomore despite his solid freshman campaign in 2005. The right-hander showed the coaches and the country just what he could do in 2006, posting a 13-2 record and a 2.38 ERA while logging a team-leading 155 innings. His efforts culminated in him earning Collegiate Baseball's Co-National Player of the Year award, and an invitation to play with Team USA.
In fact, when posed the question about pitching, Coach Horton was sure of just one thing.
"Wes Roemer will start on February 2," Horton stated, "that's a good start for us. Last season we didn't even have that. We had a closer, but we didn't have a Friday night guy."
That leaves 19 other Titan pitchers vying for the Saturday and Sunday starting spots. With January workouts right around the corner, the coaching staff has to start postulating throwing routines that coincide with the opening weekend series with Stanford.
Horton said, "If we had to choose today, Adam Jorgenson (RHP, Junior, Costa Mesa, Calif.), Travis Kelly (RHP, Freshman, Alta Loma, Calif.), Michael Morrison (RHP, Freshman, Cypress, Calif.) and Sean Urena (RHP, Redshirt-Freshman., Rialto, Calif.) would be the four guys fighting for the Saturday and Sunday slots."
While Jorgenson has seen spot midweek starts in his two years at Fullerton, he has worked primarily out of the bullpen. Last year he was 2-0 for the Titans, with a 1.48 ERA in 30.1 innings.
Another guy who could play a key role in the pitching staff is Jeff Kaplan, a junior transfer from Irvine Valley College.
"Kaplan can be key for us," said Horton. "He graded out the highest of all the pitchers who threw in the fall. To start the season, he will either be the Saturday/Sunday starter or the closer. He looks to be our best candidate right now to replace Vinnie [Pestano]."
When the starting spots and closer jobs all fall into place, the Titans will then look to find the closer a complement, like Ryan Paul was to Pestano last season. Horton is a firm believer in the match-up game when it comes to lefties and righties, but Fullerton was hurt by the draft and found little luck in recruiting left-handed pitchers.
"Last year I felt pretty good in the eighth inning with Paul and Pestano coming in but we knew coming into this season we were going to miss our lefties." Horton said, "We're hoping Dustin and Brenden can get outs for us"
Horton was referring to the only two left-handed hurlers on the roster, one a JC transfer from Fullerton College in Dustin Birosak (Junior, Chino Hills, Calif.), and the other a freshman from Peachtree City, Georgia, in Brenden Hall. They along with returners Cory Arbiso Justin Klipp will fight for innings in the middle relief.
Horton was very pleased to see the emergence of Mike Anderson. The redshirt freshman is coming off arm surgery and might be the dark horse on this year's staff. The skipper was thrilled to see him progressing in his throwing routine. Anderson is back up on the mound and is already touching 90 mph on the radar gun. Looking into his crystal ball, Horton predicted that Anderson could be a first-round draft pick down the road.
"Potentially, Mike can bring a lot to this pitching staff," Horton said with a smile. "He is unproven and raw, and from a coach's standpoint something very exciting to see. He has a chance to become something really special."
When prompted to talk about his infield, Coach Horton stated without skipping a beat, "Evan McArthur is the third baseman. There is no question about that."
At the end of last season the infield suffered the loss of three of its four members to professional baseball. Horton will look to McArthur to provide much needed leadership, with the departure of Turner, Davis and Pill.
Horton is pleased that McArthur has accepted the role and thinks "E-Mac" has done a fantastic job with it thus far, recently telling a room full of family and Titan fans at the 2006 Awards Banquet that the returning senior is the best third baseman he has ever coached.
Speaking about shortstop and third base Horton said, "defensively, the left side of our infield will be just as good as it has been in recent years. We think we have a superstar in the making at short in Joe Scott.
"He is a fabulous shortstop, a smart baseball player and we don't think we will miss a beat with him in the six hole."
Scott was the reserve infielder last season behind both Turner and Davis. He got just 14 at bats and hit .286, but was a defensive replacement in 20 of the Titans 65 games.
Horton seemed slightly more concerned when asked about the right side of the diamond, not because of who would likely play there, but because who was lost. "You don't just replace a Justin Turner and a Brett Pill, but I think we'll be adequate."
Cypress College transfer Joel Weeks (Junior, Cypress, Calif.), listed as a shortstop in the fall, will likely be the starting second baseman for the Titans come February. Weeks, along with Nate Bridges (Freshman, Yorba Linda, Calif.), Ryan Aguyo (Freshman, Pico Rivera, Calif.) and Cory Jones (Freshman, Camarillo, Calif.) will all work to see some time in the middle infield.
Senior Jake Vasquez has emerged as the front runner as the new Titan first baseman and is turning heads with his bat work. In fact, he hit three home runs in his first three non-mandatory workout at bats.
Commenting on Vasquez, Horton stated, "How Texas A&M cut him loose has all of us shaking our heads.
"He has passed every test we have thrown his way. It will make the loss of Pill and David Cooper (transferred to Cal) acceptable."
"The surprise this year is having Johnny back," Horton said about John Curtis returning for his senior year. "We recruited with the thought he was going to be scooped up by Major League Baseball and signed."
Curtis hit a career-high .277 last season in 58 games. His return now has the Titans stockpiled behind the plate. Horton figures it will play out a lot like last year where Curtis and Cory Vanderhook platooned to keep both catchers well rested.
"We're likely going to create playing time for Dustin Garneau (Sophomore, San Pedro, Calif.) and Matt Wallach (Junior, Yorba Linda, Calif.). They are both ready to catch at the Division I level. We've had the shuffling of catcher in recent years, last year finding time for Vanderhook, and the splitting of time with (Kurt) Suzuki and (P.J.) Pilittere in the past.
The right-handed hitting Garneau made appearances on the Titans' 25-man travel roster last year, but saw little time behind the plate. The freshman collected a pair of hits in three at bats, finding his way into nine games. Wallach, son of former Titan and Major Leaguer Tim, is a transfer from Cypress College, and, like Curtis, swings a left-handed bat.
Mark Kotsay, Reed Johnson, Shane Costa, Aaron Rowand, Danny Dorn and Brandon Tripp are just a few Titans to have graced the outfield at Goodwin Field under the tutelage of Coach Vanderhook. For the first time in his career, Coach Horton will step into the role of outfield coach and try to do justice to Hook's prior works.
The loss of Dorn and Tripp in the outfield has given Horton a slight cause for concern in 2007. Horton admitted, "We don't have three centerfielders that we can interchange anymore and this group is probably the least athletic we have seen here in a long time.
Clark Hardman will be the centerfielder and is one of the only guys who is functioning at the level to which the Titan brass is accustomed. Horton sees that Hardman's arm strength has come back after a season-ending injury in 2005 that slowed his game in 2006. The Titan head coach also sees him performing at the same level he did in 2004, when he achieved Freshman All-American status.
Nick Mahin (Junior, Cypress, Calif.) is a transfer from Santa Ana College and has Horton comparing his ability to former Titan and Major Leaguer Reed Johnson. "He's not as much of an execution guys as Reed was, but he plays with the same mentality."
Mahin is an exciting player to watch, a versatile hitter who could find himself in either the leadoff spot, or down a couple of notches in the No. 3 hole. He can also play left and rightfield.
Jared Clark will likely reprise his role in rightfield. The junior hit .277 last season with five homers and 30 RBI.
Horton thinks this year's non-conference schedule is as challenging as it has ever been. The Titans will be fighting against their opponents' great tradition, great coaching staffs and great players.
"I'm not expecting Stanford to roll over. They are coming off a down period by their standards," Horton started to list. "East Carolina's coach is in his second year, and I expect that team will be vastly improved and Wichita is flat out a tough place to win."
Add UCLA, Pepperdine, San Diego, Arizona and fellow 2006 College World Series participant Rice to the mix and the Titans have their work cut out for themselves. Seven of the Titans `07 opponents qualified for post-season play last season.
"Everyone talks about Omaha, like we are a shoe-in. But we have to win conference games first," commented the reigning Big West Coach of the Year on the Titans' conference schedule. "UC Irvine is going to be good, UC Riverside will be good, UC Santa Barbara is a lot better, and Long Beach is always good. Forgetting Omaha for a second, I see some tough competition in league.
"Every inning and every game will be a dogfight. I see this year's league schedule as a five-horse race for the championship."