Oregon Trail: Nov. 1

A monthly look at what goes into building a program from scratch

By now you've probably heard that Oregon will field a baseball team in 2009 for the first time since 1981. It's not every year that a school with the kind of resources Oregon boasts essentially starts a program from scratch. The Ducks showed the college baseball world they mean business on Sept. 1 when they hired George Horton away from Cal State Fullerton to lead their rebirth. One of the nation's best coaching staffs--including talented assistants Jason Gill and Andrew Checketts--is attempting to build an elite program from scratch, in the backyard of two-time defending national champion Oregon State, no less. We figured it would be compelling to check up on the Ducks' progress each month, in a feature called Oregon Trail. The first installment catches up with the coaches exactly two months after they were hired.

Over the last few years, recruiting has gone haywire. Coaches can no longer be content to scout the rising senior class, they've got to be looking two, three or even four years down the road. It's not unheard of for top players to secretly "commit" to schools as freshmen in high school, even though an official letter of intent can't be signed until the fall of their senior year.

In that kind of atmosphere, it's easy to see why Oregon's coaching staff was worried about being hopelessly behind schedule when it took over in September. The Ducks will field their first team in 2009, which means they need a large bounty from the high school class of 2008; unfortunately, many of the top seniors have long since committed to other schools.

"The Northwest is thin and picked through," said Checketts, an Oregon native who joined Horton's staff from UC Riverside,"so most of our recruiting is in Southern California initially. Our long-term plans won't be that--our '09s will be Northwest heavy."

Checketts said the junior class in the Northwest is chock full of power arms and quality athletes, but in the meantime the Ducks will use their bountiful California connections to ink some hidden gems.

Horton said Oregon has already secured 10 commitments for 2008, and four more recruits were scheduled to visit the first weekend of November. The buzz in the coaching industry is that the Ducks are doing very well given their late start. Appropriately enough, Oregon's first commitment was a native of Eugene, but landing speedy, slick-fielding middle infielder Danny Pulfer was a coup. Pulfer, a senior at Marina High in Huntington Beach, Calif., originally planned to attend UC Irvine but de-committed when coach Dave Serrano left to fill Horton's shoes at Fullerton.

The Ducks are also targeting California junior college players, hoping to lure some impact players by offering large scholarships that will be freed up again in a year if the players sign pro contracts. Oregon will have the full 11.7 scholarships at its disposal immediately, but deciding how to employ those resources while also planning for the future requires some creativity.

"That's going to be the trick," Horton said. "We'd like to, when all the dust settles and the draft settles and we get our full complement of players, in a perfect world we'd have depth and quality and a good team, but we've only issued about eight scholarships. We can offer 11.7 and maybe even more than that accounting for the draft, but we don't want to have a full team and have no scholarship money for the '09 class. That's going to be our charge is predicting who's going to school and who isn't and being more accurate than ever on that."

One approach the Ducks are exploring is front-loading scholarship offers. Rather than offer a player an annual 60 percent scholarship, for example, Oregon might offer him 70 percent his first year but explain up front that it will be reduced to 50 percent his second year.

"We're putting our cards on the table right out of the gate," Horton said.

Mid-year transfers are another avenue that could help the Ducks. The elimination of the one-time transfer exemption means that players who move from one four-year school to another will have to sit out a year beginning in 2008, but players are still allowed to transfer freely after the fall 2007 semester. Schools around the nation are certain to experience an unpleasant roster crunch as they try to pare down their rosters to fit under the 35-man cap that goes into effect next summer. So forward-thinking players who might not get much playing time would be wise to transfer this winter, rather than be forced out after the spring semester and have to sit out a year.

Such players are welcome at Oregon, where they could essentially treat 2008 like a redshirt year and spend the spring working out in Eugene. Their patience would be rewarded with immediate playing time in 2009, but that's not the only significant selling point for Oregon.

"I think (kids) are excited about my staff and myself and the energy up here, and the newness is a positive thing for most of them," Horton said. "The negative side is some of the blue chippers are wondering how long it will take us to compete at the national level. The answer is we're asking them to trust us--we're going to compete at the highest level. We're going to use those diaper dandies--I asked our equipment guy the other day if he has any diapers with (Nike) swooshes on them. He laughed."

That sense of humor is proving invaluable to Horton during these first hectic months. He and his wife, Francie, bought a custom home, but they're still in the process of rearranging the floor plan. Francie and the two Horton daughters who are still in school are staying in Southern California until the kids finish the academic semester. In the meantime, Horton is staying in a one-bedroom apartment on top of a garage, accommodations that a local couple previously offered to Oregon's football offensive coordinator while he got settled. The pad has a pinball machine that has hosted a few grudge matches between Horton and Gill--when the two assistants aren't out pounding the pavement recruiting.

Checketts and Gill, who are tag-teaming Oregon's recruiting efforts, have been out on the road more than they've been in their office since they joined the Ducks. Both assistants have backgrounds that bring relevant skills to the table--Gill was an assistant under John Savage when UC Irvine reinstated its program after a long hiatus, so he knows how to start from scratch. And Checketts, an Oregon State product, has roots in the Northwest that the other two coaches lack. Horton knew what to expect from Gill, his dynamite recruiting coordinator at Cal State Fullerton, but Checketts' contributions have been beyond his wildest expectations, he said.

"The reason I hired (Checketts) is he's from up here, so he'd have a better handle on the regions we need to concentrate on and so forth," Horton said. "The other reason is I saw the quality of the product he developed at UCR. I knew he was a grinder, out there all the time looking at guys, but he's brilliant. I can't say enough about him. I did good (hiring him)."

Of course, Horton will have to wait to get to know Checketts better until the early signing period ends in a few weeks. Maybe then, the new Ducks can exhale--at least until they start in on the next order of business.