Oregon State Looks Well Armed For An Encore

Minutes after Baylor’s Mike Pankratz blooped a 10th-inning, 50-foot single off Kevin Gunderson to drive in the winning run and end Oregon State’s unexpected run to the College World Series, the feisty Gunderson sat on the dais in Rosenblatt Stadium’s media room and offered a guarantee.

“It’s unfortunate that we lost, but the Beavers will be back next year, I can promise you that,” Gunderson said. “We’ve got a great nucleus coming back. We’re losing some strong guys, but we’ve got some good guys coming in. The Beavers will be back in Omaha next year in 2006, I can promise you that.”

It was a simple, defiant challenge to anyone who dared suggest Oregon State was a one-year Omaha wonder, along the lines of recent feel-good CWS stories Southwest Missouri State (2003), Louisiana-Lafayette or San Jose State (both 2000). But while those programs soon settled back to earth, there is reason to believe Oregon State might be able to prolong its magical ride and maybe even establish itself as one of the nation’s elite programs.

“We know that last year we did something special, but we don’t believe that it happened by accident,” sophomore shortstop Darwin Barney said. “We really came together–all the talent finally came into one place from the area–and we really meshed as a team. You have to credit the coaching staff a lot; they put us in the position to be successful. Last year everything just clicked well.”

The Beavers made a remarkable run in 2005, when Pacific-10 Conference coaches picked them to finish eighth in the league in the preseason. Instead, Oregon State won the conference and made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1986. But the Beavers didn’t stop there, winning a regional on their home field and then outlasting Southern California in the super-regional en route to their first College World Series berth since 1952. After the season, the two best offensive players from that team–leadoff man/first-round pick Jacoby Ellsbury and senior leader/slugger Andy Jenkins–left for the professional ranks, yet Oregon State’s expectations remain high. And no one feels too much pressure from Gunderson’s bold proclamation.

“I laughed about it. I always told him, ‘I really appreciate you putting that big bulls-eye on our chest,’ ” Oregon State coach Pat Casey said. “When you’re 5-foot-8, 155 pounds and as tough as he is, that’s what he survived on, I guess.”

Stacked Staff

Gunderson’s brashness is part of what makes him a great closer, the anchor at the back end of a loaded Oregon State pitching staff that will determine how far the Beavers can go this year. Starters Dallas Buck, Jonah Nickerson and Anton Maxwell–who combined to go 32-4 in 2005–are all back, and the staff has been bolstered further by quality transfers and freshmen.

If Tyler Graham, who shifts from left field to center, can replace some of Ellsbury’s production at the top of the order, and Barney and senior third baseman Shea McFeely can have the breakout years Oregon State thinks they can, the Beavers will have enough offense to make them legitimate contenders again.

But after this year is when it will get interesting, because the pitching nucleus will be gone. The Beavers are doing their best to capitalize on their success while they can, installing a new scoreboard for this season and raising funds to expand Goss Stadium at Coleman Field in the future. And making another trip to Omaha this year would likely secure their ability to lock up the Pacific Northwest’s top recruits, helping sustain the program for the long haul.

For his part, Gunderson is not backing down from his promise that the Beavers will do just that.

“I’m not going to take that statement back–and I’m going to hear about it this year, and that’s fine,” Gunderson said. “I don’t regret saying it. I think we’re going to have a bulls-eye on our chest regardless of what anybody says. We’re not sneaking up on anybody this year. Everybody knows the type of pitching we have, the position players we have, and I think everybody knows what they’re going to get–a team that plays hard and loves to play.”