Oregon Trail: Dec. 7

With early signing period over, Ducks exhale

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 can boast essentially starts a program from scratch, and the Ducks showed the college baseball world they mean business when they hired George Horton away from Cal State Fullerton to lead their rebirth on Sept. 1. With one of the nation's best coaching staffs—including talented assistants Jason Gill and Andrew Checketts—attempting to start an elite program in the backyard of two-time defending national champion Oregon State, we figured it would be compelling to check up on the Ducks' progress once a month, in a feature called The Oregon Trail. Click here to check out the November installment.

Oregon's coaches have been looking forward to December for a while now. It's not that they haven't enjoyed these manic first few months with the Ducks, but as Jason Gill admits, this has been without question the busiest time of his life. Finally, with the early signing period in the rear-view mirror, the coaches get to step back and breathe.

"Some of it is spending time with our wives," said Gill, who has rented an apartment in Eugene with his wife, Kacey, while they use their Costa Mesa, Calif., home as a rental property. Andrew Checketts has found it even more difficult to spend time with his wife, who is finishing her master's degree in California and won't be moving to Oregon until March. In the meantime, Checketts has taken her on a couple of recruiting trips, but they haven't even had time to find a place to live—Checketts and Gill were living in hotels until mid-October, and since then Checketts has been staying with a booster, in his few moments not spent on the road.

But now it's December, and the coaches can relax just a bit. George Horton went on a vacation to the Bahamas for eight days, and Gill went to Saturday's Oregon-Oregon State football game (more on the Civil War next month) with his wife and brother, rather than with recruits.

"I got to enjoy that," Gill said. "I've been to football games, but with the players there, we're meeting them at halftime, making sure they're fed, standing up near them."

Gill said Saturday was a nice change of pace, even though the Ducks lost 38-31 in overtime.

The hectic autumn has yielded a bountiful harvest. The Ducks signed 21 players in the early signing period, including 10 junior college transfers who bring instant experience to Eugene without tying up Oregon's scholarship allotment for the next three years. The rest of the class is composed of athletic high school players with a feel for playing the game.

"Our goal coming in was to get 15 quality commitments, and we have exceeded that number," Horton said in a statement. "The quality of these recruits surpassed my highest expectations."

Checketts has a terrific track record turning loose, projectable but raw arms into stars at the collegiate level (see: freshman All-American Joe Kelly, a converted outfielder with a 94 mph fastball who closed for UC Riverside in 2007). This class contains several such power arms that could flourish under Checketts' tutelage. Among the juco signees that Checketts called "late bloomers," lefthander Ben Whitmore of Fresno ( Calif.) CC runs his fastball up to 93 mph; 6-foot-4 righthander Zack Thornton of Ventura ( Calif.) CC has a heavy sinker that reaches 94; righty Pete Ruiz of Santa Barbara (Calif.) CC is a converted first baseman with a low-90s heater and a quality 12-to-6 curveball; and 6-4 righty Justin LaTempa of Golden West (Calif.) CC has command of a three-pitch mix highlighted by a fastball that reaches the mid-90s.

Add in prep players like Pennsylvania two-way star Scott McGough (who touched 93 at the World Wood Bat Fall Championship in Jupiter, Fla.), and the Ducks have an impressive collection of arms lined up, though a few of them figure to be enticing draft targets in June. Those pitchers are surrounded by quality athletes like outfielder Ty Morrison, a plus runner with arm strength who slipped through the cracks after moving from Virginia to Hawaii, and Lassen ( Calif.) outfielder Kenny Bartz, another plus runner with a good lefthanded contact bat.

"I think mainly what we were looking for was the best players available," Gill said. "What was surprising for us is what was still available for us to get. We feel that we got the best junior college guys that were available that we knew about. I think up here in the Northwest we'll find some surprises in the spring that we didn't know. Our goal was just to get athletic, find some guys that won't be slugs on the basepaths, that could defend, and get some pretty good arms, and I think we did."

Then, of course, there's Cypress ( Calif.) High shortstop Danny Pulfer, who might be the key to the whole class. Pulfer is a classic Cal State Fullerton-type player in the mold of former Titan star Justin Turner, and he figures to anchor the middle of Oregon's infield for the next few years while sparking the offense with his gap-to-gap bat and ability to get on base.

"We told him we want to build our program kind of around him—he brings that kind of energy to the ballpark," Gill said. "Just hard-nosed, running everywhere, he never jogs down to first base. That's how he knows to go, that's how he plays."

So many of the building blocks are now in place, and the coaches can begin addressing other areas that await their attention. Gill said he's spending part of December trying to set up baseball camps and ordering equipment—everything from L-screens to baseballs and Wiffle balls, buckets and tees, five pitching machines and throw-down bases.

The coaches have also begun preliminary planning on the team's uniforms. Nike, which will equip the Ducks from head to toe, brought in some of its lead designers to talk with the coaches and show them a Powerpoint presentation.

"They told us we would be like a 31st Major League Baseball team—that was kind of neat to hear," Gill said. "They're trying to go with some of the old stuff—combine it with their new material, so it's a sleeker look but keep a newer feel. We talked about pinstripes, but we don't think green pinstripes are the way to go.

"With all the stuff they do with Oregon, the main priority is the performance of the uniform. They gave us one of last year's uniforms that Fullerton had, and they gave us one of the new lines that they have, and the difference in the weight was unbelievable. Performance was first, design was second, which was kind of neat to hear."  

Which isn't to say the Ducks aren't thinking about the look of the uniforms. Given the often-outlandish uniforms worn by the Oregon football team, the appearance of the baseball uniforms tends to be a hot topic.

"Everyone always asks if we're going to do the crazy stuff like the football—Coach Horton's kind of shied away from that," Gill said. "I'm trying to talk him into one crazy one. You kind of have to, right? It's expected."