FULLERTON, Calif.--- With just 45 days remaining until opening day, FullertonTitans.com sat down with head coach Rick Vanderhook, as he gives us his thoughts on the upcoming season in the final edition of our two-part one-on-one series.
FullertonTitans.com: The pitching staff posted a school-record low 2.22 ERA last season and have a lot of those guys coming back this year, including last year's freshman All-American Colton Eastman. That has to make you feel good coming into the new year.
Vanderhook: I definitely feel good with the top end of our staff. The starters are going to be great. John Gavin has a lot of starts in his career and has pitched in a lot of big games. Connor Seabold is the same way, having to step in for (Justin) Garza as freshman. Those were obviously some big shoes to fill and I thought filled them well. Colton Eastman also stepped in last year and did better than expected. I thought those three guys did extremely well and having them at the top of the staff again this year gives us some comfort, but after that we have a lot of uncertainties. Brett Conine threw 30 innings last year, Gavin Velasquez threw 19.1 innings and Maxwell Gibbs threw 13. Trent Paddon, the transfer from Oregon had some major innings, but those guys in the middle are really going to have to sort themselves out.
FullertonTitans.com: What about the offense? You have nice mix of returners and newcomers, with some junior college guys as well. What are your expectation for this unit?
Vanderhook: We have a lot of experience. Taylor Bryant has gotten to play in Omaha and didn't get to play last year because of concussions. Timmy Richards is a three-year starter and has gotten better every year. Having those two guys as a redshirt junior and a senior gives us some stability on one side of the field. Tristan Hildebrandt played unbelievable second base last year and made only one error the entire all year. He's gotten better with his offense. Hank LoForte played a lot last year and has really taken a giant step forward offensively in the Fall. As small as he is, he swings the bat a lot bigger. We also brought in Dillon Persinger to be a guy in the infield who is a strong "Dan Uggla like" infielder. He has some pop in the bat and just knows how to play baseball. First base is probably the biggest spot that is up in the air. Jake Pavletich got his feet wet last year and was a guy who just kept performing and performing. This is the first time in his career he's been at one spot the entire time. Chris Prescott is also a junior college guy and a lot of the time the game is a little too fast for your transfers, but for both him and Persigner that hasn't been the case at all.
Then of course we have Scott Hurst back who is healthy and will be playing centerfield. He can really hit. Ruben Cardenas will also be in the outfield. He got his feet wet as a freshman and he's probably the most talented all-around player on the team. He can hit, field, can really do it all. Hunter Cullen is also in the mix as a senior in the outfield. He's taken his lumps for a few years but he's managed to slow the game down. Chris Hudgins will be a nice addition behind the plate, as he only played 26 games last year due to a torn ligament in his finger. We have experience everywhere, so that's a huge plus for us. They're all baseball players. These guys don't need to be over coached, they coach each other.
FullertonTitans.com: It seems like every year Fullerton's non-conference schedule is one of the strongest in the nation and this year's is no exception. What's your philosophy when it comes to constructing your non-conference schedule?
Vanderhook: We want to play schools in different environments. We want to play tough competition that we feel will get us ready for conference play. We play a lot of games early. It forces us to use everyone, especially on the pitching side of things. It really gives everyone a chance to show what they can do. We have some five-game weeks in there. At one point, we go from Houston to Arizona State. Houston is going to be really good. Both Houston and ASU will be top-25 clubs at some point. Then we come home and play Gonzaga right after that. They were a regional team last year. Like I said, we just want to go out and get a feel for different environments and different teams, so hopefully we can establish what our identify is going to be. Sometimes you get lucky and you go out and win a lot of games but if we can win 10 of our first 18 games we're going to be in pretty good shape heading into conference play. I know we could choose to play lower level teams and pump up our statistics, but we're preparing for conference play and for the end of the season. That's the way it's always been since I've been here. We're always going to go test ourselves early.
FullertonTitans.com: When fans come see your team play this year, what's the one thing you hope they leave Goodwin Field thinking?
Vanderhook: That team knows how to play baseball and they play hard.
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