San Diego's Momentum Carries Over To Recruiting




Few programs have generated more momentum over the last few years than San Diego. The Toreros climbed to No. 4 in the rankings last year en route to winning the West Coast Conference title and hosting their first regional, though they went 0-2 in the event at San Diego State's Tony Gwynn Stadium.

In the offseason, USD coach Rich Hill signed a contract extension, which contained language about a new 2,100-seat, state-of-the-art stadium that will be built at the current Cunningham Stadium site. Lefthanders Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski spent the summer with Team USA and could wind up as first-round picks in the 2008 draft.

And to top it off, the Toreros brought in the nation's best recruiting class. By securing three recruits who ranked among the top 100 prospects for the 2007 draft and four other potential high-impact newcomers, USD has ensured its momentum will not go by the wayside.

"It's hard to temper my enthusiasm, but on paper, the ingredients are all there," Hill said of his top-ranked class. "It's a tremendous group, obviously, but we don't use the word 'expectations' in our program. But again, it's hard not to be absolutely excited about the group of guys we have in here."

Hill, recruiting coordinator Eric Valenzuela and assistant Jay Johnson had to do plenty of sweating before getting to enjoy the fruits of their recruiting labor. After the draft, righthander Kyle Blair and third baseman Victor Sanchez boosted their value further by shining against older competition in the Northwoods League, but both eventually turned down significant offers from the Dodgers and Cubs, respectively, before the Aug. 15 signing deadline.

Righty Matt Thomson was a late addition to the class, committing to USD within 24 hours after the draft once it became apparent that USD second baseman Justin Snyder planned to sign with the Yankees, freeing up some scholarship money for Thomson. Like Blair and Sanchez, his draft stock soared over the summer, when he showed off his power arm in the Alaska League, but he also wound up on campus.

Hill and Valenzuela are the first to admit that luck plays a significant role in landing such a high-profile class—it's a high-stakes game of chance, and all three prime recruits could easily have signed, leaving the Toreros with little to show for their efforts. But credit USD with targeting unique players who had a decent shot to make it to campus.

Blair marches to the beat of his own drummer (he took a year off from school in eighth grade to travel the world and climb Mount Kilamanjaro), while Thomson and Sanchez are also academically oriented. Lefthander Sammy Solis turned down Notre Dame, where his father and sister went, in favor of the Toreros; Valenzuela says Solis was the toughest to recruit, but USD's perseverance paid off.

Pursuing academic-oriented kids is nothing new for private schools, and Hill says the Toreros have used Southern California's success under Mike Gillespie in the late '90s as a model. The Toreros also have a more local model to follow.

"If you look at a small-market team in the major leagues—and we have a chance to follow the Padres here—you're going to go after big arms, big bats, premium position type of players," Hill said. "It's like spending money in the free agent market; you're going to go big scholarships on a few guys, and you can really round out your roster with guys on academic scholarships, financial aid packages, and kids whose parents have planned for their kids' education.

"To get a degree from USD is an investment in your future. We've been very fortunate to get players as recruited walk-ons to really round out our roster and at the same time become impact players for us."

Just as USD has models to follow, so too do blue-chip players such as Blair who turn down large professional contracts to enroll at San Diego. Matusz, a fourth-round pick as a prep, was in a similar position as Blair coming out of high school, and he opted to take his chances that his value would spike in school. Now he's got a chance to be drafted No. 1 overall.

"Brian Matusz has been our poster boy and probably our best recruiter," Hill said. "For him to turn down seven figures out of high school and have the success he's enjoyed in college and make himself like a top-five pick has done amazing wonders for our program, so it really has snowballed. Guys six or seven years ago taking the step to join our program laid the foundation, but the last couple of years, it's really catapulted with guys like Brian and Josh Romanski, and winning on a national level has put our program in the national picture."

Now just imagine what heights the Toreros could reach if the current talented group leads them to some elusive postseason success.