Faulkner: UCI baseball back among elite

If the 2007 UC Irvine baseball team's run to the College World Series helped make it possible to believe, the 2014 Anteaters' unlikely ascension to Omaha will forever embolden 'Eater Nation with the notion that anything is truly possible.

Russell Turner, can you say men's basketball Sweet 16?

Marc Hunt, do the Big Four perennial men's water polo elite really seem as daunting as they might have a month ago?

Chris Volk and Scott Juniper, don't the men's and women's College Cup(s), respectively, suddenly loom at least one philosophical time zone closer?

And David Kniffin ... never mind. You and your men's volleyball program already seem to have this "No Prisoners" thing down pretty well.

Just days after Coach Mike Gillespie's energetic, though less-than-supremely-talented baseball team fired its final blank in a 1-0 elimination loss to Texas, the buzz around this team, similar to 2007, is still resonating in the living rooms of future recruits.

Though a handful of players on this year's roster that I spoke to only vaguely recalled watching the 2007 postseason drama as junior high students, the now-expanded ESPN portal provided a more consistent opportunity for people to become even more familiar with the mashless marsupials who rip far less than they reap, thanks in large part to Gillespie's guile.

For as much as all-time ace Andrew Morales dealt, Connor Spencer slashed, Taylor Sparks crushed and Elliot Surrey slung, UCI's 2014 success was stratergerized by Gillespie and implemented by his star-studded staff. Gillespie, who figures to be in place at least as long as next year's incoming freshmen are in uniform, was rightfully showered with national and regional coaching awards. Those accolades merely add to the already reverential respect reflective of his diamond deeds, not to mention a countenance that is both regal and accessible.

Squeeze bunts with two strikes, pinwheeling runners to score from second on groundouts, starting runners and stopping hearts, the 41-25 Anteaters even mixed in the occasional extra-base hit.

And while starting a strong-armed catcher at shortstop and a high school quarterback at second base, the presence of above-average defenders at the corner infield spots, catcher and center field, helped the surprisingly proficient parade of pitchers follow Morales' lead to protect most leads, however minuscule, the offense could create.

The bullpen, led by NCAA saves leader Sam Moore, who earned All-American recognition despite a late-season lull that cost him his confidence and his job, was part of the story throughout. And Evan Brock, both starting and later relieving, finished his career with the kind of promise he displayed in the 2010 postseason, before arm surgery sapped his big-league potential.

Jimmy Litchfield, whose 70-mph floaters would fail to intimidate most Little Leaguers, wound up with the school record for pitching appearances (117). Most of those outings left opposing hitters scratching their batting helmets, as well as licking their statistical wounds and machismo alike.

Junior catcher Jerry McClanahan, whose hard-nosed defensive grit and 4G-response-time release to second base made him the aforementioned defensive anchor, became a clutch run producer, even though more than one-quarter of his 36 runs batted in (third-most on the team) came on outs.

Sparks flashed athleticism at the hot corner and at the plate, though his somewhat disappointing offensive campaign (.308, five homers and 37 RBIs, compared to .360, 10 dingers, 50 RBIs in 2013) was wrought with valleys that seemingly rivaled the hills. His bat did, of course, catch fire when it counted most, wowing national broadcasters, rivals and spectators alike with a .417 postseason batting average, just as the No. 58 overall pick had impressed major-league scouts for years.

In addition to Moore, who won the Gregg Olson award given to the nation's top breakout performer, Surrey and first-team All-Big West designated hitter Jonathan Munoz bolted from the shadows to frequently bask in a well-deserved spotlight.

And contributions from Kris Paulino, Evan Manarino, Mitch Merten, emerging freshman and future star Adam Alcantara, Justin Castro, Ryan Cooper, Mikey Duarte, Evan Cassolato, Kyle Davis, and John Brontsema, as well as a few more, extended beyond the upbeat attitude they all threw behind the lineup card, even if they were seldom included.

Flanking Gillespie is affable and capable veteran assistant Bob Macaluso, as well as former Anteater All-Americans Ben Orloff and Daniel Bibona.

Orloff, whose skyward coaching trajectory will likely make him Gillespie's successor, could one day be known more for his passionate recruiting and dugout acumen than he is now revered for his landmark college career.

And Bibona, whose work with the pitchers can not be overly appreciated, is perhaps the most valuable volunteer in college coaching.

UCI baseball, absent from the postseason in 2012 and 2013, is clearly back. And UCI athletics, already a bit of a mid-major marvel, has more relevance because of it.

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