College Weekend Preview: Jan. 25-28

National champs throw out first pitch of 2007 season




Meaningful Matchup
Oregon State at Hawaii-Hilo

The new season picks up seamlessly where it left off, as the last team to record an out in 2006 will be the first team to make an out in 2007. You might remember Kevin Gunderson throwing his arms in the air after getting that final out against North Carolina last June; chances are there won't be quite as much emotion when an Oregon State player heads back to the dugout after making the first out of 2007 in the top of the first inning against Hawaii-Hilo on Thursday. But that doesn't mean the four-game set between the Beavers and Vulcans, which wraps up on Saturday, is without symbolic significance.

It's appropriate that the college baseball spotlight should shine for one day on Oregon State and Hawaii-Hilo, a day before anyone else's season begins. The Beavers open their 100th season earlier in the calendar than they opened any of their previous 99, and with more optimism for the future of the program than ever before. In the wake of consecutive College World Series appearances and a national championship, the Beavers locked up coach Pat Casey with a long-term contract extension, secured funding to renovate their stadium and signed one of the nation's best recruiting classes. This is a program with wind in its sails, and as a cold-weather school it figures to benefit further when the change-of-season plan goes into effect in 2008.

Top 25 Schedule
(16) Oregon State at Hawaii-Hilo
Complete Schedule
Cal Poly at San Diego
Nevada-Las Vegas at Cal State Northridge
Paul Quinn (Texas) at Prairie View A&M
Nevada at St. Mary's
Santa Clara at Hawaii
Montreat (N.C.) at Savannah State
On the other end of the spectrum, this weekend is a swan song of sorts for Hawaii-Hilo. The change-of-season plan could be a death knell for the Vulcans, who will no longer be able to play games in January and February as they have for many years.

"That's going to really affect us," Hilo coach Joey Estrella said. "Right now I don't have any games scheduled in February (of 2008). I'm not sure what the future lies for baseball for us at the Division I level if we cannot get an exception later on. We're one of the few schools that has been adversely affected by that."

The Vulcans depend upon early-season visits from cold-weather schools like Oregon State and fellow 2007 opponents Kansas and Wichita State, who escape to Hawaii to avoid getting a much later start than warm-weather schools. The NCAA encourages Division I teams to travel to Hawaii by offering an exemption to the 56-game limit--games on the islands don't count against that limit. But moving the start date back to late February all but ensures that teams will be far less willing to pay to travel to Hawaii for non-conference games.

The University of Hawaii might be able to withstand that hit because teams in the Western Athletic Conference will still be required to travel to Hawaii, leaving the Rainbows with fewer scheduling gaps to fill. The Vulcans once played in the WAC themselves, but their shrinking budget no longer makes that a viable possibility--they are usually limited to one long road trip per year in April. Estrella said he'd like some of the WAC teams that come to the islands to play the Rainbows to include a stop in Hilo in their plans, but the WAC is switching from three-game series to four-game sets, leaving less time for games with Hilo.

All of this means Hawaii-Hilo is likely ticketed for Division II in 2009, Estrella speculates. Baseball is the only D-I sport at the school, while 10 other athletic programs at Hilo compete in the D-II Pacific West Conference. Only three other schools in the conference play baseball, but Estrella said there has been some talk of forming a six-team baseball affiliate conference if they can find two other baseball programs to join.

That might be Hilo's best chance at surviving, because its D-I days seem numbered. Of course, the Vulcans have a more urgent problem to deal with this week, with the defending national champions in town.

Cold-weather team or no, the Beavers shouldn't have too much trouble this weekend. Gunderson, Dallas Buck, Jonah Nickerson and Cole Gillespie might be gone, but Oregon State has plenty back on the mound and around the diamond and remains a top-20 team. The Vulcans, on the other hand, lost the entire weekend rotation from a team that went just 15-34 in 2006. Junior college transfers Lars Knepper and Joe Davis will step right into weekend rotation spots, and sophomore Clayton Uyechi (4-1, 9.25 in 24 innings a year ago) figures to be the third starter. The offense has a little more experience, with a pair of two-year starters in first baseman A.J. Satele and second baseman Michael Higa. Estrella hopes senior outfielder David Chu, who missed all of 2006 with a shoulder injury, can add some punch to the lineup.

"This early in the season we're just trying to find ourselves," Estrella said. "We're really not so much concerned about our opponent, just preparing ourselves to play whoever. The only problem is this year we're opening up with the defending champs, so there's a little more urgency for us to get ready than it would be with a lesser opponent. Playing a program that coach Casey has put together, just an awesome program, that's a big test. I don't know if you can ever be ready for a test like that, but our kids are really excited."

Marquee Mound Matchup
D.J. Mauldin vs. Brian Matusz

While the showdown between San Diego outfielder Shane Buschini and his younger brother Adam Buschini, a first baseman for Cal Poly, offers plenty of intrigue, the real one to watch this weekend will be on the mound Friday night, where USD sophomore lefthander Brian Matusz will take on Poly sophomore righty D.J. Mauldin. An unsigned fourth-round pick (Angels) in 2005, Matusz is the more established pitcher--a third-team preseason All-American with a pair of plus pitches in his 90-94 mph fastball and hard breaking ball. Mauldin struggled to throw strikes in 29 innings last spring, going 2-2, 5.65 with 19 strikeouts and 19 walks. But he pounded the strike zone all summer in the Central Illinois Collegiate League, where he ranked as the No. 10 prospect thanks largely to his plus slider. With a slight 6-foot, 190-pound frame, Mauldin does not overpower, working mostly in the high 80s with his fastball and touching 92. But if he continues to throw strikes, he should have no trouble making the conversion from the bullpen to Friday night starter. Helping him make that transition will be new pitching coach Jason Kelly, who spent the last two seasons as pitching coach at Division II Chico State. Kelly, who pitched at Poly in 1999, replaces Jerry Weinstein, who left earlier this month to become manager at high Class A Modesto in the Rockies system.

Upset City
Santa Clara over Hawaii

Hawaii, our preseason pick to win the Western Athletic Conference, gets a bit of a test this weekend in Santa Clara, our pick to finish fifth in the West Coast Conference. Don't let the prognostication fool you--the Broncos are dangerous. Ace lefthander Matt Wickswat (9-2, 3.54 as a freshman last year) has a quality three-pitch mix and relies on plenty of deception and movement. Junior lefty Donald Brandt (3-1, 3.42 last year) is another experienced, capable starter, and hard-throwing sophomore closer Mark Willinsky (nine saves, 5.49 ERA), coming off a fine summer in Alaska last year, has a physical, 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and a power arm. The Broncos' offense will have at least four new faces this year, but just two of their projected starters are lefthanded bats, giving them a favorable matchup against a Hawaii staff that is dominated by southpaws. Look for the Broncos to steal a pair of games in Hawaii.

Under The Radar
Matt Bowman, Jr., Nevada

Bowman, a center fielder, might get overlooked because of his 5-foot-7, 175-pound build, but he makes up for his size with his work ethic and hard-nosed style of play. Bowman led the Wolf Pack in most major offensive categories a year ago, including batting (.376), home runs (eight), doubles (17), RBIs (40) and stolen bases (11). He'll be a handful for St. Mary's this weekend.
Streakin'
Eric Cattoni, Sr., St. Mary's

An outfielder, Cattoni finished last season on a tear, batting .455 with four doubles and a triple over his final four games. He finished the year as the Gaels' leader in doubles (16), stolen bases (17) and walks (30). He'll try to pick up where he left off against Nevada.

Slumpin'
Hawaii-Hilo

The Vulcans are just 1-5 in season openers since 2001. Reversing that trend against Oregon State will be a tall order.

Stat of the Week
218 Stolen Bases

Prairie View A&M led Division I with 218 stolen bases in 2006, 27 more than second-place Mississippi Valley. Outfielder Calvin Lester accounted for 56 of those on his own (leading the nation), and he's back for his senior year after being named the top prospect in the Southern Collegiate League last summer. The Panthers should get off to a fast start on the basepaths this weekend against NAIA Paul Quinn.

Scouting Report
Cal Poly vs. San Diego

The Mustangs visit the Toreros for a three-game series this weekend that figures to be the most interesting of the opening weekend. Cal Poly has plenty of questions to answer, having lost five position players, its entire weekend rotation and its closer, but coach Larry Lee thinks his new pitching staff has a better feel for pitching than last year's power trio, led by Gary Daley and Bud Norris. USD, meanwhile, has plenty of pitching back from a team that went 33-25 a year ago. But the Toreros will lean heavily on catcher Jordan Abruzzo to repeat his eight-homer, 58-RBI campaign as a junior, because their top two hitters from last year are gone. One coach who played both teams last year offers this analysis

Poly has lost most of their pitching staff from last year, so their starting staff will be primarily new. San Diego brings back two frontline starters, with Matusz and (Josh) Romanski, and then they bring (Matt) Couch back, who was their Sunday guy last year, and he's very, very good as well. Weekend pitching for San Diego is very good, but I know they lost some pop in the middle of their lineup with Keoni Ruth (.358-2-34, who transferred to Concordia, Calif.) and Steve Singleton (.363-5-41). It should be a hard-fought series. I would give San Diego a slight edge because of pitching.

In The Dugout
Mitch Canham

The precocious Kevin Gunderson is gone, but Canham and shortstop Darwin Barney are worthy heirs as Oregon State's media darlings. Canham, the Beavers' junior catcher, will be counted on for leadership and power production in the middle of OSU's lineup. He has plenty to say on topics ranging from the Beavers' amazing title run to his plans for a follow-up to his hit rap song, "O-State Ballaz," which became the Beavers' anthem the past couple of seasons (you can hear last year's version, written by Canham, at http://ostateballaz.com). Canham even said the Beavers played the song in the dugout after they fell behind 5-0 in Game Two of the College World Series championship series, and OSU started its comeback the next inning.

Oregon State's Mitch Canham
Q: So how's the rap career going?

We just got done making a new song for this year's team. Mostly I'm just supportive of my buddies that do it. It's a good way for the team to have something to listen to before the game. We put on another concert this year, a way to do performances, promoting for my buddy (Ryan MacBriar, a.k.a. Pain), raise money for different organizations. Last year we raised over a thousand dollars for Special Olympics. I helped promote one for my buddies to come down and perform.

Q: When will the new version be available?

It will be out next weekend, we'll post it online. Ryan MacBriar and I are going to start our own foundation, and we're going to have people download the song and make donations online. We got a lot of responses from it last year, a lot of people downloaded it.

Q: So you win the national championship and then have to open your title defense in Hawaii. Tough life, huh?

I actually have too much homework to go hang out on the beach, too much work on the field too. I'm so amped, I've been amped for the past few weeks, I want to play! It's go time, and everyone's feeling the same way. All we want to do after class is hit the fieldhouse and take some hacks.

Q: Have you had a chance to look back and appreciate what you guys accomplished last year?

I've probably watched the highlight video over 150 times. I get excited and antsy for the next year--I get all teared up almost. The stuff that we went through last year and how good of friends we became, it kind of sucks that those guys aren't around anymore. It's a great memory that you'll never ever forget.

Q: Much has been made of Kevin Gunderson's guarantee that you guys would be back in Omaha last year. He's gone now--do you care to make any fearless predictions in his place?

I'll tell you right now, I think that our talent this year is just as good if not better than last year's team. We had a phenomenal team, but I am so amped up about the potential that this team has--if guys go out there practicing with the heart that this team has, I think we'll be back in Omaha. I've been going out telling people we're going out and winning it again. If anyone settles for less than a national championship--'Oh hey, we're going to win the Pac-10,'--they got the wrong idea. Every sport I've ever played, we achieved, tried to be the best possible. There's no reason just trying to make it to the playoffs, you either win the thing or nothing at all. My idea is I'm going back. Everyone on our team feels the same way. You watch the highlight video last year, it makes (the newcomers) think, 'I want a ring!' Well, let's go get it!