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College Notebook: San Diego Opens
Season With Optimism
By John Manuel
With the season approaching, San Diego coach Rich Hill could hardly contain his excitement.
"The smell of the grass, the anthem, the clean uniforms . . . it's awesome," Hill said via mobile phone, on his way to the season opener for the Toreros. "I just can't wait to get started."
Hill's optimism is well-founded; he's on a roll as one of the West Coast's up-and-coming coaches. First, Hill resuscitated the San Francisco program, recruiting the likes of Taggert Bozied and Jesse Foppert before coming to San Diego for the 1999 season, succeeding the retired John Cunningham. While Cunningham was an institution in the community, Hill has taken the Toreros to new heights, including back-to-back West Coast Conference titles and the program's first two regional appearances ever.
This year, the Toreros expect improvement over last season's 32-30 overall mark, and they got off to a good start over the weekend by winning two of three games against host Cal Poly. In front of a healthy Opening Day crowd of 1,246 at Baggett Stadium, the Mustangs won the opener 3-0 on a combined three-hit shutout by junior righthander Jimmy Shull and senior righty Nolan Moser. But the Toreros turned the tables the next two games with two shutouts of their own, the first time an opponent spun back-to-back shutouts on the Mustangs since 1995.
One key reason for San Diego's optimism in 2004 is the return of senior outfielder/pitcher Tom Caple, who missed last season with an injury to his right (pitching) shoulder. In 2002, Caple was the WCC's top player, going 9-5, 4.05 while also hitting .318-0-30 with a .423 on-base percentage. He showed he was back healthy over the weekend, capping the series with a perfect inning in relief of a 4-0 series-clinching shutout.
Caple will relieve this year behind a rotation that includes lefthander Justin Blaine, who threw five three-hit innings on Sunday, and Aaron Wilson, a senior who threw six scoreless frames in Saturday's victory. Caple also added three hits Sunday and two on Saturday while starting in center field.
San Diego also has other important seniors back like outfielders Josh Hansen and Joey Prast, who were both all-conference performers in 2003. Prast (.346-12-57 last year) drove home Caple to cap the scoring Sunday, while Hansen (.309-9-48) had the weekend's biggest blast, a grand slam in Saturday's 10-0 romp.
Those seniors, plus the return of pitchers such as Blaine (4-5, 4.28) and Wilson (6-6, 4.55), help make the Toreros the WCC favorite. They must replace the WCC's most important player from 2003, closer/outfielder Tony Perez (13 saves, .355-7-35 at the plate), but those numbers could fit Caple comfortably.
So you can see why Hill was so optimistic. The Toreros return to action Friday against Cal State Northridge.
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