Oregon Trail: Nov. 1
A monthly look at what goes into building a program from scratch
By now you've probably heard that
Oregon will field a baseball team in 2009 for the first time since
1981. It's not every year that a school with the kind of resources
Oregon boasts essentially starts a program from scratch. The Ducks
showed the college baseball world they mean business on Sept. 1 when
they hired George Horton away from Cal State Fullerton to lead their
rebirth. One of the nation's best coaching staffs--including talented
assistants Jason Gill and Andrew Checketts--is attempting to build an
elite program from scratch, in the backyard of two-time defending national champion
Oregon State, no less. We figured it would be compelling to check up on
the Ducks' progress each month, in a feature called Oregon Trail. The first installment catches up with the coaches exactly two months after they were hired.
Over the last few years,
recruiting has gone haywire. Coaches can no longer be content to scout
the rising senior class, they've got to be looking two, three or even
four years down the road. It's not unheard of for top players to
secretly "commit" to schools as freshmen in high school, even though an
official letter of intent can't be signed until the fall of their
In that kind of atmosphere, it's easy to see why
Oregon's coaching staff was worried about being hopelessly behind
schedule when it took over in September. The Ducks will field their
first team in 2009, which means they need a large bounty from the high
school class of 2008; unfortunately, many of the top seniors have long
since committed to other schools.
"The Northwest is thin and
picked through," said Checketts, an Oregon native who joined Horton's
staff from UC Riverside,"so most of our recruiting is in Southern
California initially. Our long-term plans won't be that--our '09s will
be Northwest heavy."
Checketts said the junior class in the
Northwest is chock full of power arms and quality athletes, but in the
meantime the Ducks will use their bountiful California connections to
ink some hidden gems.
Horton said Oregon has already secured 10
commitments for 2008, and four more recruits were scheduled to visit
the first weekend of November. The buzz in the coaching industry is
that the Ducks are doing very well given their late start.
Appropriately enough, Oregon's first commitment was a native of Eugene,
but landing speedy, slick-fielding middle infielder Danny Pulfer was a
coup. Pulfer, a senior at Marina High in Huntington Beach, Calif.,
originally planned to attend UC Irvine but de-committed when coach Dave
Serrano left to fill Horton's shoes at Fullerton.
The Ducks are
also targeting California junior college players, hoping to lure some
impact players by offering large scholarships that will be freed up
again in a year if the players sign pro contracts. Oregon will have the
full 11.7 scholarships at its disposal immediately, but deciding how to
employ those resources while also planning for the future requires some
"That's going to be the trick," Horton said. "We'd
like to, when all the dust settles and the draft settles and we get our
full complement of players, in a perfect world we'd have depth and
quality and a good team, but we've only issued about eight
scholarships. We can offer 11.7 and maybe even more than that
accounting for the draft, but we don't want to have a full team and
have no scholarship money for the '09 class. That's going to be our
charge is predicting who's going to school and who isn't and being more
accurate than ever on that."
One approach the Ducks are
exploring is front-loading scholarship offers. Rather than offer a
player an annual 60 percent scholarship, for example, Oregon might
offer him 70 percent his first year but explain up front that it will
be reduced to 50 percent his second year.
"We're putting our cards on the table right out of the gate," Horton said.
transfers are another avenue that could help the Ducks. The elimination
of the one-time transfer exemption means that players who move from one
four-year school to another will have to sit out a year beginning in
2008, but players are still allowed to transfer freely after the fall
2007 semester. Schools around the nation are certain to experience an
unpleasant roster crunch as they try to pare down their rosters to fit
under the 35-man cap that goes into effect next summer. So
forward-thinking players who might not get much playing time would be
wise to transfer this winter, rather than be forced out after the
spring semester and have to sit out a year.
Such players are
welcome at Oregon, where they could essentially treat 2008 like a
redshirt year and spend the spring working out in Eugene. Their
patience would be rewarded with immediate playing time in 2009, but
that's not the only significant selling point for Oregon.
think (kids) are excited about my staff and myself and the energy up
here, and the newness is a positive thing for most of them," Horton
said. "The negative side is some of the blue chippers are wondering how
long it will take us to compete at the national level. The answer is
we're asking them to trust us--we're going to compete at the highest
level. We're going to use those diaper dandies--I asked our equipment
guy the other day if he has any diapers with (Nike) swooshes on them.
That sense of humor is proving invaluable to Horton
during these first hectic months. He and his wife, Francie, bought a
custom home, but they're still in the process of rearranging the floor
plan. Francie and the two Horton daughters who are still in school are
staying in Southern California until the kids finish the academic
semester. In the meantime, Horton is staying in a one-bedroom apartment
on top of a garage, accommodations that a local couple previously
offered to Oregon's football offensive coordinator while he got
settled. The pad has a pinball machine that has hosted a few grudge
matches between Horton and Gill--when the two assistants aren't out
pounding the pavement recruiting.
Checketts and Gill, who are
tag-teaming Oregon's recruiting efforts, have been out on the road more
than they've been in their office since they joined the Ducks. Both
assistants have backgrounds that bring relevant skills to the
table--Gill was an assistant under John Savage when UC Irvine
reinstated its program after a long hiatus, so he knows how to start
from scratch. And Checketts, an Oregon State product, has roots in the
Northwest that the other two coaches lack. Horton knew what to expect
from Gill, his dynamite recruiting coordinator at Cal State Fullerton,
but Checketts' contributions have been beyond his wildest expectations,
"The reason I hired (Checketts) is he's from up here,
so he'd have a better handle on the regions we need to concentrate on
and so forth," Horton said. "The other reason is I saw the quality of
the product he developed at UCR. I knew he was a grinder, out there all
the time looking at guys, but he's brilliant. I can't say enough about
him. I did good (hiring him)."
Of course, Horton will have to
wait to get to know Checketts better until the early signing period
ends in a few weeks. Maybe then, the new Ducks can exhale--at least
until they start in on the next order of business.