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College Notebook: San Diego Opens
Season With Optimism

By John Manuel
January 26, 2004

With the season approaching, San Diego coach Rich Hill could hardly contain his excitement.

"The smell of the grass, the anthem, the clean uniforms . . . it's awesome," Hill said via mobile phone, on his way to the season opener for the Toreros. "I just can't wait to get started."

Hill's optimism is well-founded; he's on a roll as one of the West Coast's up-and-coming coaches. First, Hill resuscitated the San Francisco program, recruiting the likes of Taggert Bozied and Jesse Foppert before coming to San Diego for the 1999 season, succeeding the retired John Cunningham. While Cunningham was an institution in the community, Hill has taken the Toreros to new heights, including back-to-back West Coast Conference titles and the program's first two regional appearances ever.

This year, the Toreros expect improvement over last season's 32-30 overall mark, and they got off to a good start over the weekend by winning two of three games against host Cal Poly. In front of a healthy Opening Day crowd of 1,246 at Baggett Stadium, the Mustangs won the opener 3-0 on a combined three-hit shutout by junior righthander Jimmy Shull and senior righty Nolan Moser. But the Toreros turned the tables the next two games with two shutouts of their own, the first time an opponent spun back-to-back shutouts on the Mustangs since 1995.

One key reason for San Diego's optimism in 2004 is the return of senior outfielder/pitcher Tom Caple, who missed last season with an injury to his right (pitching) shoulder. In 2002, Caple was the WCC's top player, going 9-5, 4.05 while also hitting .318-0-30 with a .423 on-base percentage. He showed he was back healthy over the weekend, capping the series with a perfect inning in relief of a 4-0 series-clinching shutout.

Caple will relieve this year behind a rotation that includes lefthander Justin Blaine, who threw five three-hit innings on Sunday, and Aaron Wilson, a senior who threw six scoreless frames in Saturday's victory. Caple also added three hits Sunday and two on Saturday while starting in center field.

San Diego also has other important seniors back like outfielders Josh Hansen and Joey Prast, who were both all-conference performers in 2003. Prast (.346-12-57 last year) drove home Caple to cap the scoring Sunday, while Hansen (.309-9-48) had the weekend's biggest blast, a grand slam in Saturday's 10-0 romp.

Those seniors, plus the return of pitchers such as Blaine (4-5, 4.28) and Wilson (6-6, 4.55), help make the Toreros the WCC favorite. They must replace the WCC's most important player from 2003, closer/outfielder Tony Perez (13 saves, .355-7-35 at the plate), but those numbers could fit Caple comfortably.

So you can see why Hill was so optimistic. The Toreros return to action Friday against Cal State Northridge.

In Other Action

  • Hawaii-Hilo opened the season by dropping five of seven games against Kansas. As expected from a seven-game series crammed into five days, pitching was at a premium, and the Jayhawks rapped out 83 hits in the series while scoring 63 runs. Catcher Sean Richardson, a transfer from Palomar (Calif.) JC, led the Kansas offense, going 11-for-19 on the series with 13 RBIs, including a 4-for-7, seven-RBIs effort in the 17-10 victory that capped the series. However, two of the Jayhawks' top returning pitchers, Chris Smart and Ryan Knippschild, combined to give up 17 runs in 12 2/3 innings, a disquieting start.

  • The Vulcans recovered over this past weekend, though, to split four games with San Diego State. The Aztecs opened the season with a victory for the first time since 1996 with a 6-3 win Saturday, with senior Ryan Schroyer getting his first save after transferring from Arizona State. Senior righthander Chris Hartshorn threw a complete game for the Aztecs in a 9-2 victory Sunday. The five-game set was scheduled to conclude Monday night with SDSU two wins shy of 2,000 for the history of the program.

  • New Mexico State senior Billy Becher, who led the nation in home runs and RBIs in 2003, picked up where he left off last year, slamming a home run as the Aggies rallied to beat College of the Southwest 13-10 in its opener, then swept the series with a 14-5 win Sunday. NMSU needed five runs in the bottom of the eighth of the opener, with Becher's two-run homer capping the uprising. Becher then went 2-for-4 with another homer and three RBIs in the second victory.

  • The coach Craig Gibson era began for Mercer this weekend on a sour note as the Bears dropped two of three at Florida A&M. The Rattlers got seven RBIs on Sunday from Virgil Priestly in an 11-8 series-clinching victory, and Priestly had 10 RBIs for the weekend.

  • It won't count in the standings, but Southern California is in the midst of a five-day trip to Cuba for exhibition games and a cultural exchange. Tennessee and Washington are among the other Division I programs to have visited Cuba in the last five years. "It's a great cultural and educational opportunity, a great lifetime opportunity for all of us," USC coach Mike Gillespie told Kirk Kenney of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "To get a feel for the people and their communities and what really is the truth down there is very, very special."

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