Image credit: Gunnar Groen (Courtesy of Pepperdine)
At the time the 2020 season was canceled, the West Coast Conference was bursting with storylines that we didn’t get to see play out.
Pepperdine was ranked in the top 20, San Diego was off to a hot start, Portland and Santa Clara might have had the best teams those two programs have had in a long time, and we were waiting to see if the start of conference play would be just what the doctor ordered for Brigham Young and Gonzaga, the teams predicted to finish atop the WCC standings that had taken some lumps against tough non-conference schedules.
For the sake of the conference and its fans, it’s worth hoping that the league picks things up where it left off in 2020. If nothing else, Pepperdine once again looks poised to put on a show and the WCC is always good for a close finish in the standings.
Despite there generally being more uncertainty about the format of the season on the West Coast than in other parts of the country throughout the offseason, the WCC is moving forward with a standard schedule of 27 league games made up of nine three-game series.
Player of the Year: Billy Cook, OF, Pepperdine
After an up-and-down freshman season and an injury-shortened sophomore campaign, Cook broke out in 2020 for a resurgent Pepperdine club, hitting .344/.452/.672 with four home runs and five stolen bases. His tools and measurables jump off the page. He has a sturdy, strong frame at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he has big raw power, the speed to handle center field and above-average arm strength. That not only makes him the type of player who can do just about everything for the Waves this season, but also makes him an intriguing prospect for the upcoming draft.
Pitcher of the Year: Cy Nielson, LHP, Brigham Young
A highly-regarded pitcher coming out of high school, Nielsen came to BYU as part of the Cougars’ Top 25 recruiting class in 2019. In his first season on campus, he showed flashes of what he can become, putting up a 4.29 ERA, 27 strikeouts and a .241 opponent batting average in 21 innings of work. In 2021, he’ll look to take the next step and not only thrive as BYU’s Friday starter but also develop into one of the best pitchers on the West Coast. Headlined by a fastball that can reach the mid 90s, he certainly has the stuff to make it happen.
Newcomer of the Year: Jimmy Galicia, RHP, Loyola Marymount
A transfer from El Camino (Calif.) JC, Galicia will step into the LMU rotation to begin the season. In his two seasons in the junior college ranks, he went 19-4 with a 2.16 ERA and 139 strikeouts compared to just 36 walks in 179 innings of work. The coaching staff sees the righthander as a tough competitor who will relentlessly throw strikes. With the departure of Nick Frasso, LMU needs pitchers to step up, and Galicia is a prime candidate.
Predicted Order of Finish (2020 record)
1. Pepperdine (12-3)
Capped off by an impressive series win over Michigan, the Waves ended the 2020 season 12-3, ranked No. 16 and firmly in place as the favorite in the conference. The loss of righthander Wil Jensen, who led last season’s team in innings pitched and strikeouts, can’t be overlooked, but the rotation should still be excellent with the return of fourth-year sophomore righthander Cooper Chandler (3-0, 1.00), who runs his fastball from 90-94 mph with a good slider, fourth-year sophomore righthander Gunnar Groen (2-1, 2.57), who uses a three-pitch mix highlighted by a low-90s fastball, and third-year sophomore righthander Trevor Kniskern (2-1, 5.40), a plus athlete with a fast arm. The bullpen projects to be anchored by a new face in second-year freshman righthander Trevor Hinkel, who didn’t see any time in 2020. He works with a fastball from 91-93 mph to go along with a slider and changeup. Second-year freshman lefthander Shane Telfer (3.12, 8.2 IP) should also have a big role after tying for the team lead in appearances last season. His three-pitch repertoire includes a fastball from 88-92 mph, a curveball and a changeup.
But just because the pitching staff is good, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is your father’s stereotypical scrappy West Coast team that is going to try to win games 3-2. This team can really swing the bats, too. The Waves hit .301/.390/.441 last year and bring back all of the top hitters from that group. Third-year sophomore shortstop Wyatt Young (.299/.373/.299) and fourth-year junior center fielder Billy Cook (.344/.452/.672) are the headliners thanks in large part to their status as prospects for the draft, but they’re far from alone. Also back in the fold are fifth-year senior third baseman Aharon Modlin (.413/.472/.571), fifth-year junior right fielder Reese Alexiades (.397/.458/.571), fourth-year junior left fielder Mike Malinchak (.395/.458/.512), fifth-year senior first baseman Justin Lutes (.328/.438/.655) and second-year freshman catcher Ryan Johnson (.286/.375/.429). The lineup also doubles as a good defensive group, led by strong defenders at third base in Modlin and shortstop in Young, a premium athlete in Cook and a good fielder with a strong arm in right field with Alexiades. There’s very little stopping this Pepperdine team from being every bit as good as the team we saw play so well in 2020.
2. San Diego (12-4)
The Toreros impressed in 2020, racing out to a 12-4 start that included a series win at Indiana, and now they bring back a talented team that should pose the biggest challenge to Pepperdine at the top of the conference. There is high-end talent to burn on the pitching staff, led by second-year freshman righthander Carter Rustad (4-0, 0.84), who was one of the most talented prep pitchers in the 2019 class to end up on a college campus. Blessed with a fastball that can reach the high 90s at its best, Rustad has the stuff to be one of the best arms on the West Coast. Behind him, the duo of fifth-year senior lefthander Grady Miller (2-0, 3.13) and third-year sophomore righthander Jake Miller (1-1, 2.49) gives USD proven options to round out the rotation. Third-year freshman righthander Conner Thurman (2.70, 13.1 IP) is also back to close out games.
Even with the departure of Adam Kerner to pro baseball as a free agent after the season, USD boasts a lineup that should put up plenty of runs in the pitching-centric WCC. Fourth-year junior Shane McGuire (.469/.561/.688) and third-year sophomore Caleb Ricketts (.351/.418/.456) can both play catcher and first base. McGuire will go into the season as the default backstop, with Ricketts slated for first base, but they could swap at any time. Sixth-year senior second baseman Thomas Luevano (.356/.424/.593) broke out in a big way as a graduate transfer from Creighton last season and will look to keep that momentum going into 2021. You can also call fifth-year senior third baseman Adam Lopez’s 2020 season (.309/.379/.455) a breakout campaign, and if he can replicate that in 2021, it will give the USD lineup additional strength. Fifth-year senior Paul Kunst, at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, is often one of the smaller players on the field, but as a .285 career hitter in more than 500 career plate appearances who also rarely strikes out, he’s a catalyst any time he’s out there. Look for true freshman infielder Kevin Sim, who projects to start at DH, and UCLA transfer outfielder R.J. Teijeiro to make instant impacts. With this impressive collection of talent, USD has a shot to return to the postseason for the first time since 2013, when Kris Bryant manned third base for the Toreros.
3. Brigham Young (7-9)
The BYU coaches sees this as the best pitching staff they’ve had in their time in Provo, and it’s easy to see why. It starts with second-year freshman lefthander Cy Nielson (0-3, 4.29). A top-notch prospect coming out of high school in 2019, Nielson lived up to expectations last season despite a tough-luck 0-3 record. He has big-time stuff all around, including a fastball that sits 90-94 mph. Third-year freshman righthander Jack Sterner, brother of former BYU standout Justin Sterner, is now fully healthy after Tommy John surgery and projects to slot in behind Nielson in the rotation. With his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame, he can really bring it, with a fastball that was up to 95 mph last fall. Second-year freshman righthander Bryce Robison (1.32, 13.2 IP) will look to make the move to the rotation after jumping onto the scene as an impact reliever right away in 2020. For further evidence of just how good BYU’s starting options are, look no further than fourth-year junior righthander Easton Walker (0-2, 5.65). In 2019, he had the lowest ERA of any starting pitcher on the roster, and this year, he will most likely find innings as a fourth starter or swingman. The combination of second-year freshman righthander Mikade Johnson (2.16, 8.1 IP) and third-year sophomore righthander Reid McLaughlin (4.82, 9.1 IP) will close out games. Johnson sits 93-97 mph with his fastball with a good slider, while McLaughlin was the team’s most effective reliever in 2019 and works with a fastball from 88-92 mph.
To fully support the pitching staff, the lineup will have to hit better than last season, when it had a .204 team batting average. The return of a number of veterans, many of whom simply had down years in 2020, should provide confidence that they can show improvement. Second-year freshman second baseman Andrew Pintar (.286/.364/.339) is the top returning hitter after he took to Division I baseball nicely in 2020. Among those looking to bounce back are fifth-year senior catcher Abraham Valdez (.205/.326/.256), who hit .288 in a part-time role in 2019, and fourth-year junior center fielder Mitch McIntyre (.200/.352/.255), who hit .291 with seven home runs two seasons ago. Fourth-year junior left fielder Hayden Leatham (.177/.288/.323) struggled out of the gate in his first season at BYU in 2020, but he has some pop in his bat and a great track record of success at the junior college level before transferring in. The lineup won’t have to do much to make BYU competitive at the top of the conference. The pitching staff is that good on paper. But if the Cougars want to seriously compete for the conference title, a big jump is necessary.
4. Gonzaga (6-10)
Don’t let the 6-10 record last season fool you. Gonzaga played a tough schedule, including a four-game series against Arkansas, and had the season played out as scheduled, it probably would have found itself back in the mix at the top of the WCC. Expectations should be high again in 2021. The rotation did lose two key pieces in Mac Lardner and Nick Trogrlic-Iverson, both of whom signed professional contracts, but fourth-year junior Alek Jacob is back to start on Fridays. The low-slot righthander, who won’t blow away hitters with a fastball from 85-87 mph, has a 2.71 ERA and a .206 opponent batting average in 202.1 career innings and comes into the season once again among the favorites for conference pitcher of the year honors. A pair of converted relievers in second-year freshman righthander Gabe Hughes (0.77, 11.2 IP) and fourth-year junior righthander Alec Gomez (2.31, 11.2 IP) will get first crack at filling in the rotation behind Jacob. Hughes has a big arm with a fastball that has been up to 95 mph and a firm slider in the high 80s, plus a curveball and changeup. Gomez has a four-pitch arsenal highlighted by a fastball in the low 90s. The vacuum in the bullpen created by Hughes and Gomez moving to the rotation will be filled by second-year freshman lefthander Bradley Mullan, who didn’t see time last season, and second-year freshman righthander William Kempner (7.36, 7.1 IP), a sidewinder who works at 92-94 mph but was up to 96 with his fastball in the fall.
There’s more certainty in the lineup, where all of the team’s top bats are back. That includes well-known veterans like fifth-year junior shortstop Ernie Yake (.338/.403/.523) and fifth-year senior right fielder Ryan Sullivan (.283/.375/.450), and players for whom 2020 was a breakout season, like fourth-year junior catcher Tyler Rando (.352/.431/.389), who projects to be Gonzaga’s DH, third-year freshman catcher Stephen Lund (.323/.354/.468) and fifth-year junior third baseman Brett Harris (.283/.384/.367). The healthy return of fifth-year senior center fielder Guthrie Morrison is huge. He hit .306/.351/.392 in 2019 before missing last season due to injury. With so much returning experience, there aren’t a lot of at-bats to be had by newcomers, but Wofford transfer first baseman Andrew Orzel (.315/.431/.370) is one player who should find his way into the lineup right away.
5. Loyola Marymount (8-8)
LMU has what should be a deep, well-rounded team on its hands going into 2021, even after losing a handful of its best players to professional baseball. The weekend rotation, now without the services of Nick Frasso, will be led by fifth-year senior righthander Josh Agnew (2-1, 5.87), who struggled in 2020 but was an effective Saturday starter on the 2019 regional team with a 3.24 ERA. He’ll be followed by junior college transfer righthander Jimmy Galicia, who put up a 2.16 ERA in 179 innings over two seasons at El Camino (Calif.) JC. Third-year sophomore lefthander Alex Burge (4.32, 8.1 IP) will round out the rotation, with fourth-year junior lefthander Matt Voelker (0.00, 14.2 IP) and fourth-year junior righthander C.J. Fernandezees (3.12, 17.1 IP) set to close games out. After pitching lights-out baseball last season, Voelker has seen his velocity increase this offseason, with his fastball now clocking in at 92 mph. First baseman Trevin Esquerra and catcher Cooper Uhl are gone from the lineup, but the arrival of a pair of transfers in catcher Alec Cargin (.294/.379/.569) from Wofford and outfielder Julian Bury (.355/.429/.452) from Columbia promise to make up for a lot of that missing production. Having Voelker (.267/.327/.378), a two-way player, back, along with fourth-year junior shortstop Alex Lambeau (.279/.333/.328) is also a big deal for the lineup. After not hitting for his first two years on campus, Voelker came on strong last season and became a middle-of-the-order bat, while Lambeau is both a steady hitter and a plus defender. Among freshmen, first baseman Diego Baqueiro is a player to watch. He may end up as LMU’s third baseman of the future, but for now, he is slated to play first base and provide some pop in the lineup.
6. Saint Mary’s (8-8)
Saint Mary’s will look to have success as a pitching and defense-dominated team in 2021. Certainly, it helps achieve that goal when you start by building your pitching staff around an ace like fourth-year junior righthander Carlos Lomeli (0-3, 3.08), a hard-nosed competitor with good stuff that plays up because of deception in his delivery and the way he mixes pitches. But there’s also talent around him on the mound, including in fellow starters Dalton Ponce (2-1, 2.45), a third-year sophomore righthander, and junior college transfer lefthander Kyler Bush, who throws what the coaching staff calls an exploding fastball from 91-94 mph. Also back is three-year closer Michael Hobbs (2.53, 10.2 IP), who is making a quick return from Tommy John surgery to be ready for Opening Day. Of course, the other half of the pitching and defense equation is important, too, and the Gaels have that with the return of quality defenders in third-year sophomore shortstop Kyle Velazquez (.205/.327/.273), second-year freshman third baseman Chris Campos (.310/.375/.397), fifth-year senior center fielder Jacob Talamante (.269/.356/.346) and fifth-year senior right fielder Ryan Novis (.286/.338/.381). SMC doesn’t project to have a lineup that hits with a ton of power, but much of the power it does have will be provided by Coppin State transfer first baseman Justin Banks (.348/.474/.587).
7. Portland (12-4)
The Pilots got off to a flying start last season, finishing 12-4 even after losing three games during what ended up being the final weekend of the season. WCC play and a chance to prove that the team was for real was just around the corner, but that chance never came. Instead, the 2021 season will provide that opportunity with a number of Portland’s top players back in the fold. It starts with a pitching staff led by fifth-year senior righthander Christian Peters (3-1, 0.63) and fourth-year junior righthander Eli Morse (2-0, 3.10), both of whom took the ball all four weekends last season, along with third-year sophomore righthander Brett Gillis (0.00, 12 IP), third-year sophomore righthander Peter Allegro (1.20, 15 IP) and returning closer Connor Knutson (3.48, 10.1 IP), a fifth-year senior. The lineup won’t be hurting for high-end production with the return of third-year freshman outfielder Jake Holcroft (.484/.522/.758), third-year sophomore first baseman Tracye Tammaro (.333/.438/.733), whose seven homers put him among the nation’s best, and fourth-year junior shortstop Chad Stevens (.299/.373/.493), one of the best pro prospects in the conference. Utah transfer outfielder Briley Knight (.321/.441/.429) could be an instant contributor after playing in 47 games for the Utes over the last two seasons. With the high-end talent that Portland has, it’s tempting to predict that it ends up much higher in the standings when it’s all said and done, but it still seems prudent to take something of a wait-and-see approach until the team has the opportunity to prove it in conference play.
8. San Francisco (8-8)
The San Francisco pitching staff doesn’t lack for guys with good stuff. The Friday starter is sixth-year senior righthander Landen Bourassa (1-1, 1.38), who was on the way to a bounceback season in 2020 after a lost 2019 season using a four-pitch mix that includes a fastball from 90-93 mph. He’ll be followed by fifth-year senior righthander Riley Ornido (1-3, 6.16), who has 212 career innings under his belt using a fastball from 90-94 mph with a good splitter and a slider. Fifth-year senior righthander Grant Nechak (2.89, 9.1 IP) will transition to the Sunday starting role. He’s a sinker-slider pitcher who has the least stuff of anyone in the rotation, but the sinker still runs up to 92 mph. The fourth starter, in the instances when the Dons need it, is second-year freshman righthander Eric Reyzelman (2-1, 4.70), whose fastball sits 92-96 mph. The raw stuff doesn’t drop off the table when you move to the bullpen, either. Fourth-year junior righthander Alex Pham (2.70, 19.1 IP) will close games using a mix of a slider, splitter and a fastball from 93-96 mph. An extremely experienced lineup will keep the floor high for that unit. Fifth-year senior first baseman Jake Munoz (.322/.414/.407) and fourth-year junior center fielder Nick Yovetich (.319/.373/.551) are coming off of outstanding seasons and the addition of Oklahoma transfer outfielder Jordan Vujovich should only help. It also seems fair to assume that fourth-year junior shortstop Jack Winkler (.200/.350/.215) will bounce back in 2021. He struggled to get going last season, but he’s the best position player talent on the roster and he hit .300/.379/.454 in 2019.
9. Santa Clara (12-5)
Like Portland, Santa Clara was off to a hot start in 2020, showing potential for its best season in years, only to end up with unfinished business when the season was canceled. The Broncos return most of the key pieces from last year’s team, however, so the group will have a chance to pick up where it left off. In the lineup, the biggest return is that of fifth-year senior slugger Jake MacNichols (.254/.412/.635), who clubbed seven home runs a season ago. He’ll be supported by sixth-year senior infielder Ryan McCarthy (.319/.333/.486), versatile third-year sophomore Matt Jew (.308/.491/.641), second-year freshman outfielder Coleman Brigman (.306/.383/.458) and fifth-year senior shortstop Jason Dicochea (.304/.415/.420). The Broncos have many veteran options on the mound, led by sixth-year senior righthander Freddie Erlandson (0.00, 16.1 IP), fifth-year senior righthander Locke Bernhardt (2.51, 14.1 IP) and fifth-year senior righthander Alex Waldsmith (2.92, 12.1 IP). Also like Portland, it’s clear that Santa Clara has the veteran talent in place to greatly overachieve its preseason projection.
10. Pacific (8-9)
Coach Chris Rodriguez took over at Pacific in January of last year, following Ryan Garko’s move to the Angels organization, and then had his first season at the helm halted after just 17 games. Almost by default, his second season has to be much more normal. The offense was solid in 2020, hitting .277 as a team, and the return of fourth-year junior outfielder Charles Middleton (.403/.494/.657), fourth-year junior third baseman Alex LeForestier (.371/.467/.500), fourth-year junior outfielder James McClenaghan (.328/.400/.373) and third-year sophomore catcher Jeremy Lea (.302/.397/.509) should go a long way toward helping that unit do some heavy lifting again this season. Third-year sophomore second baseman James Arakawa (.203/.282/.234) seems like a good bounceback bet. He clearly struggled at the plate last season, but hit .304/.375/.356 as a freshman in 2019. With a 5.30 team ERA in 2020, there is some improvement to be had, but the Tigers appear to have a real workhorse on their hands with fourth-year junior righthander Hayden Pearce (2-0, 2.28). Third-year sophomore righthander Dylan Pottgieser (3.60, 15 IP) is also a really nice piece to have back after he excelled as a multi-inning reliever last season. He’s coming off of a standout summer in the San Diego League, where he threw 17 innings and didn’t give up a single earned run.
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