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College Baseball's West Coast Resurgence In 2019

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UC Irvine righthander Andre Pallante (Courtesy of UC Irvine)

We are getting to that time of year for college baseball—conference races are starting to take some shape, RPI standings are starting to become much more of the focus after each win or loss and, as college baseball enters the second half of the regular season, the stretch run to post season is in sight. Many of the program's goal of reaching the College World Series and playing for a national championship seems as wide open as ever.

As a former coach who has experienced both sides of the country (Tennessee from 1995-96 and again from 2012-2017 and Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine from 1997- 2011), I’ve been asked many times where the best baseball is played. I rarely share my opinion, since I believe it’s played well throughout the country. But I do believe I have a thought for this baseball season.

In the landscape of college baseball, where one side of the country has great baseball, unwavering fan support, great facilities, big budgets and big television coverage, we can’t forget the western part of our country, which may lack some of those perks but has some great baseball too. Maybe not in the same stadiums, maybe not in front of the same crowds and atmospheres and definitely not with the same budgets nor TV coverage, but the West Coast has great baseball too. Most recently, No. 1 UCLA took on No. 2 Stanford and the games were limited to streaming on Stanford’s website. But the country should be watching.

In a season when the run to the national championship is wide open, some of the teams that have the best chance to be the last one standing are in the West. Despite Arizona finishing as CWS runner-up in 2016 and Oregon State winning last year's national title, the four conferences west of the Rockies combined for a total of 13 at-large bids from 2016-18. But the West has come storming back in 2019. Not only are there six West Coast teams in the Top 25 - with UCLA and Stanford leading the way - the top two college prospects in the draft also play out west in Oregon State catcher Adley Rutschman and California first baseman Andrew Vaughn.

The Pac-12 Conference, which has a storied history of success and features the reigning national champion, has four teams, including the Beavers, ranked in Top 25. UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State, have all looked like teams that, with some continued good health and luck, can go deep into the postseason. Washington, which reached Omaha last year, is also contending to make a late run back to the postseason.

The Big West Conference, which, against many challenges, consistently finds a way to send teams to Omaha, has two teams in the Top 25 in UC Irvine and UC Santa Barbara. Those teams square off this weekend in Santa Barbara in a series that, even this early on, could have implications on who is this year’s conference champion. With perennial powers Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State not matching their typical standards this season (Long Beach so much so that it fired coach Troy Buckley on Thursday night), it’s easy to look past the Big West. But UCI and UCSB are worthy of the attention and both have Omaha history of their own.

The West Coast Conference is having one of its best years collectively, in regards to the number of teams having strong seasons, and there's a real hope that the conference can send more than just the automatic qualifier to the postseason in 2019. The quality of those teams will give any team, in any regional, competition that will be tough to beat.

The Mountain West Conference, which features Fresno State, the 2008 National Champion, is another conference with its members putting together solid seasons and good resumes that will have to be dealt with come postseason play. And lastly, the Western Athletic Conference, which in the past has been a one-bid league in the NCAA Tournament, has teams that many around the country won’t want in their regional. Trying to find a way to slow down New Mexico State’s offense, which leads the country in many categories, would be a challenge within itself. And Sacramento State is off to a strong start as well, thanks to its deep pitching staff.

So, when you look at the RPI and only see nine West Coast teams in the top 50 at the midway point of the season, don’t be mislead. Whichever teams represent the West in the NCAA Tournament will be solid, well-prepared teams that have been battle-tested and prepared to take on all comers. With seven national champions and five national runner-ups since 2000 coming from the West, I believe the proof is in the history.

Great college baseball is being played from coast to coast. The fan support may not be the same as in the Southeast, the atmosphere may not be equal and many quality programs in the West may still be a little unknown. And ultimately, I’m not sure why our game is still produced that way, but sometimes what is out of your view is out of your thoughts.

With my past experience, I truly believe you shouldn’t rest on the West this year. Because in the end, they have as good a chance of any region at being the best. We may just have to watch and see.

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