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College Weekend Preview: February 3-5
by Will Kimmey
College baseball comes to the rescue for sports fans trying to avoid the 72 hours of run-up Super Bowl pregame coverage this weekend, thanks to a schedule that offers four prime nonconference matchups.
No. 17 Southern California faces No. 22 Long Beach State in one of the most appealing series. There's also the annual Cal State Fullerton-Stanford first pitch series, this year taking place in Palo Alto. National champion and preseason No. 1 Texas opens up at San Diego. Over in the east, Miami plays host to Big South favorite Winthrop.
Enjoy these games. They might not get scheduled again.
College baseball's uniform start date takes effect for the 2008 season, and that year Feb. 22 will be the first day teams can play games. That sets the length of the season at 13 weeks, trimming three to five weeks from the schedules of warm-weather schools used to taking the field in late January or early February.
Fewer weekends mean fewer three-game series, and teams accustomed to starting early will have to schedule more midweek games if they wish to reach the NCAA limit of 56. Factor in that teams must devote between eight and 10 weeks to conference play, and there are fewer preconference opportunities for the intersectional matchups that make this part of the college baseball season so enjoyable.
"We're down to five nonconference weekends," Long Beach State coach Mike Weathers said. "Administration will say, 'Coach Weathers, you still need to go through tickets and turnstiles at Blair Field.' "
Teams such as Long Beach State that play in conferences that don't sponsor football and those not affiliated with Bowl Championship Series conferences need home weekend series to help with their athletics budget. So they might not be able to trade home-and-home series with other schools out of the need to play more home games on weekends and collect that gate.
Now, when Long Beach State plays a home-and-home series over two years with a team such as Baylor, the visitor pays its way and the home team makes the money off ticket sales. That fiscal situation might not be possible in the future, Weathers said, and Long Beach State might need to find financial guarantees to take road trips that require air travel. Those situations commonly arise when power teams play host to midlevel clubs with no return visit set up.
"Schedule-wise it will affect some relationships we've had over the last few years," Weathers said. "We won't play Baylor anymore, or it might jeopardize our Cal State Fullerton nonconference series, which is always a big moneymaker because the team that doesn't host the conference series hosts that one, and it draws well."
Long Beach State's eight nonleague weekends for 2006 include Southern California, at California, at Rice's Coca-Cola Classic, Illinois-Chicago, Baylor, at Texas, Wichita State and a nonconference series at Big West rival Cal State Fullerton. Three or four of those series will have to be trimmed come 2008.
Southern California coach Mike Gillespie also puts together strong, diverse schedules for his club. In addition to Long Beach State, the Trojans' preconference slate includes games against Florida International, three opponents in the Public Storage Classic at home, at Hawaii, Georgia and a nonconference series against Stanford. USC plays Wichita State during its Pac-10 bye week, a time when it visited Notre Dame last year.
"I'm a little concerned that they will be less willing to get into a home-and-home because they're going to be losing (home ticket sales by playing road games) because they can draw 7,000 people to some games," Gillespie said. "We're not losing as much, because we'll draw 1,500 or so, but that's the nature of things out here (in California).
"The deal we do with Long Beach State for a three-game weekend series started when Dave Snow (Weathers' predecessor) was there. It has developed into a pretty interesting matchup for people and is a big local attraction for college baseball fans."
Gillespie said he's talked with Stanford coach Mark Marquess off and on about ending their nonconference series--mostly because of the Ratings Percentage Index concern of limiting their teams' pool of opponents, though the compacted schedule could give the coaches another reason as well.
"They've gotten the best of us in recent years, so I'm a little bit worried about calling it off now and looking like a coward with my tail between my legs," Gillespie said, no more than half seriously.
Miami coach Jim Morris said the start date could hamstring teams from the North that often start their seasons with a Southern swing to take advantage of the warm weather.
"It's going to eliminate us playing some of the Northern teams," he said. "I'm going to play Florida and a West Coast team every year. That's going to eliminate some other teams coming down here to play."
Morris' Hurricanes finished a home-and-home agreement with Long Beach State in 2004 and start a new one with UCLA this season. He likes facing that kind of competition to test his club before the season begins and also enjoys the RPI boost. Playing out West also increases the program's national visibility for recruiting.
Gillespie sees the same advantages Morris points out, but noted that part of his rationale for scheduling such a diverse group of opponents was that they liked traveling to different parts of the country.
"There is a selfishness on my part, because I wanted to see someplace where I had not been or we had traditionally not been," Gillespie said. "Now, I'd like to go play at that new park at Nebraska, at LSU when they open their new stadium, and Texas Tech is getting ready to open a new one, too."
Thanks largely to budgets supplemented by football powerhouses, USC and Miami likely can afford to trade a few home series for road ones against top opponents in the future. But teams in smaller conferences might not be able to, and teams that rank among the annual attendance leaders could also be reticent about walking away from a weekend of large crowds.
"It's definitely going to affect scheduling," Morris said, "because some people aren't going to want to leave home to play."
And that means college baseball fans--and Gillespie counts himself as one--will lose part of the normal smorgasbord of enticing early matchups.
"It's fun to watch even people we don't get to play when they play each other," he said. "UCLA plays Miami and Mississippi this year, and that'll be interesting."
At least while it lasts.
AROUND THE NATION
• Sophomore lefthander Eric Berger will start Arizona's season opener against Loyola Marymount. He'll also appear in the lineup as the DH for that game and the rest of the weekend. Preseason All-American Mark Melancon begins the season as the Wildcats' closer after setting a school record with 11 saves in 2005. Coach Andy Lopez considered making Melancon his Friday starter, but for now wants his experience available to close games for a young team. Lopez said he still might revert to his earlier plan and move Melancon into the rotation when Pacific-10 Conference play begins.
• Junior righthander Randy Boone is slated to open the season
as the Texas closer, but he might not pitch this weekend at San Diego.
Arm tenderness put Boone behind schedule early in spring practice, and
pitching coach Tom Holliday might wait until next week before getting
Boone into regular season action.