The UC Davis faithful have had a chance to see the kind of excitement that can come with competing in the Big West Conference.
In the fall, it was the nationally ranked men’s soccer team advancing through a competitive conference schedule to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, the men’s basketball team is trying to follow in men’s soccer’s footsteps, gunning for the NCAA Tournament berth that would come with a Big West championship.
Big West baseball, however, always brings something different.
In baseball, it’s not about making the NCAA Tournament – it’s about winning it.
What sports like men’s soccer and basketball do for the Big West regionally, baseball is doing for the conference nationally. Year in and year out, the Big West produces some of the greatest baseball clubs in the country.
If you’re good enough to compete in the Big West, you’re automatically vying for a national championship. Individually, it means you’ll get a shot to play professionally, as close to 50 players were drafted out of the Big West in 2008.
“This isn’t a regional thing,” said UC Davis coach Rex Peters. “If you’re competing well in this conference, you can go anywhere in the country and compete. …You’ve got to be a top-40 team nationally to even finish in the top half of this conference. That’s how competitive it is.“
That competitiveness extends out of the Big West across the West Coast as a whole.
UC Davis, which opened its 2009 campaign at No. 12 UCLA over the weekend, plays the 13th-most difficult schedule in the country this season.
The Aggies‘ strength of schedule serves as evidence of collegiate baseball’s prominence out West. All 55 of their games this season will be played against West Coast clubs, including contests with defending national champion Fresno State and conference rivals No. 10 Cal State Fullerton and No. 15 UC Irvine.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of schedule you put together on the West Coast,” Peters said. “It’s going to be tough. West Coast college baseball is the best in the nation as far as I’m concerned. Anybody can beat anybody.“
While they’re not expected to be a frontline Big West contender this season, the Aggies know they’re capable of beating anybody on their schedule.
UC Davis was picked to finish seventh in the conference’s preseason coaches‘ poll.
The Aggies, however, aren’t placing much stock – if any – in their preseason rank. They were picked to finish dead last in 2008, but went on to take home sixth-place honors en route to their NCAA Tournament showing.
“I don’t put too much merit into the preseason polls,” Peters said. “There is so much parody in baseball on the West Coast. We kind of beat up on each other out here. Any one of probably 15 teams out here on the West Coast could come out of here and go to [the College World Series in] Omaha.“
For the Aggies to have success this season, they’ll need a youthful pitching staff to mature quickly, as they’ve lost 85 percent of their total innings pitched from last season’s club to the Major League Baseball Draft or graduation.
“It’s going to be a young, inexperienced staff,” Peters said. “We lost over 450 innings from last year and our entire weekend rotation. We’ve got a lot of learning and growing up to do.“
With this youth comes a world of talent, as UC Davis‘ run to the NCAA Tournament attracted a national-level recruiting class to Dobbins Stadium.
Peters said that youngsters Scotty Walker and Tom Briner – who entered 2009 having tossed just 11.1 collegiate innings, all by Briner – will be looked at to play a key role on this season’s staff.
Senior Jeremy McChesney and Andy Suiter give the Aggies a bit of experience at the front of their rotation. Suiter was drafted by the New York Yankees in June before deciding to return to UC Davis for his junior season.
UC Davis hopes whatever growing pains may come the pitchers‘ way will be relieved by an offense that could be as potent as last season’s.
Pacing the offensive attack will be junior third baseman Ty Kelly. A Tracy, Calif. native, Kelly hit .397 last season – good for second-best in UC Davis history – to go along with an impressive .448 on base percentage. Kelly projects to be an early-round selection in the 2009 MLB Draft.
Outfielders Ryan Scoma and Kyle Mihaylo should give Kelly all the protection he’ll need in the heart of the UC Davis lineup. Scoma hit .358 last season, while Mihaylo slugged .516.
“We have a chance to be a pretty good offensive club,” Peters said. “Kelly, Scoma, Mihaylo – those are the three big ones right there.“
If UC Davis‘ offense can carry the club until its young pitchers get some experience under their belts, a season that may look like a rebuilding year on paper could turn into something more.
After all, this is Big West baseball we’re talking about.
“I will say this: We are a young team and we might be going through a little bit of a rebuilding phase,” Peters said, “but a schedule like this is only going to make us better.“
Better now. Better in the future.
ADAM LOBERSTEIN will be at the UC Davis baseball home opener against San Francisco on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. You should be, too. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.