For college baseball teams in the West, particularly those in Southern California, 1986 was a very good year.
The biggest success story was Loyola Marymount's return to respectability. The Lions won their first conference title since 1973, then won the NCAA West Regional title at Jackie Robinson Stadium, beating UCLA, Pacific 10 Southern Division champion, 12-10, and UC Santa Barbara, Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. champion, 14-6, on the way to the title.
Loyola made its first trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb., and although the Lions didn't win the national championship, they defeated favored LSU in the first round, 4-3, en route to a fifth-place finish in the eight-team, double-elimination tournament.
Pepperdine, which tied Loyola for the West Coast Athletic Conference title, got a chance to show its stuff, too. Although the Waves were beaten by the Lions in a playoff to determine the league's automatic entry into the NCAA tournament, Pepperdine got an at-large berth in the Central Regional at Austin, Tex., and came within a victory of advancing to Omaha. The Waves were beaten by Arizona in the regional final, 5-3.
Arizona, which finished third in the Pac-10 Southern Division, went on to win the College World Series, beating Loyola along the way, 7-5.
Stanford, the Pac-10 Southern Division runner-up, played in the Midwest Regional at Stillwater, Okla., and also came within a victory of going to Omaha. The Cardinal lost the title game to the host team, Oklahoma State, 3-0.
So what are the prospects for 1987? Well, from all indications, the West will be stronger. And as a result of the NCAA's expanding the tournament field from 40 teams to 48, there will probably be even more schools from the Pacific 10, Pacific Coast Athletic Assn. and the WCAC involved, increasing the chances of a team from the West winning.
The Pac-10 Southern Division has long been regarded as the country's best baseball conference. It's so strong this season that UCLA, which has seven starting position players returning, along with its top two starting pitchers, isn't picked to repeat.
The best in the West? For what its worth, both preseason polls have UCLA rated high. Collegiate Baseball says second and Baseball America says third.
Even though Pac-10 Southern Division coaches picked Stanford--by a single point--to win the conference title, UCLA definitely appears to have the better all-around club.
"Our goal, as always, is to win the league," Coach Gary Adams said. "We believe realistically that we have a chance to realize our goal. The guys are hungry. They weren't satisfied with the league title. There's a couple of steps to go (to the regional and Omaha).
"We are one of the teams to beat. We're definitely in the running. But I have a lot of respect for the other teams in this league. It's such a strong league. . . . Anything can happen. I'm looking at it optimistically, but I'm also being realistic.
"This is one of the most talented groups I have ever worked with. It's also one of the hardest working teams I've had. This team isn't great yet, but it has that potential. We're striving for excellence."
Every starter returns, except first baseman John Joslyn and catcher Todd Zeile, from the 39-23 team--21-9 in league play--that batted .311, set a school record with 103 home runs and averaged 8 runs per game.
Among the returnees are senior second baseman Torey Lovullo, who batted .317 with 16 homers and led the club with 65 runs batted in, senior left fielder Steve Hisey, .342, 14 homers, 59 RBIs, and catcher Bill Haselman, .364, 11 homers, 44 RBIs, a sophomore who played right field last season.
The pitching staff, which Adams says is one of the best and deepest he's had in his 13 years at UCLA, is headed by junior right-handers Alex Sanchez, who was 16-3 with a 4.06 earned-run average and 142 strikeouts in 139 innings, and Randy Hennis, 6-7 with a 4.97 ERA.
The third starter will be senior left-hander Steve Stowell, a converted outfielder whom Adams says has been impressive, or junior right-hander Jeff Conine, 4-2 with a 5.22 ERA. Senior left-hander Bill Wenrick, 2-3 with 6 saves, is the top reliever.
"I think the strength of this team, and it's unusual for me to say this--I haven't said it since 1979 (the last time the Bruins won the league title)--is that all areas are strong," Adams said. "We have very good hitting, our defense is strong, our pitching is strong, and we can run a little. . . . We have that good balance."
Precisely because it doesn't have UCLA's balance--or talent, for that matter--USC isn't expected to be a contender in the Pac-10 Southern Division. The conference coaches picked the Trojans to finish last in the six-team league.
USC finished fourth last season with a 12-18 record, a marked improvement over 1985, when the Trojans were last at 5-25, the worst record in Southern Division history. Their overall record of 26-29, though not much to cheer about, was better than the previous year's 22-44, the worst in school history.
The Trojans will be without their top two pitchers, Brad Brink and Steve Bast, who passed up their senior years to sign pro contracts. Also gone are first baseman Scott Sommers, the conference's leading hitter at .409 with 42 RBIs, and shortstop Dan Henley.
"I think it's fair that people would evaluate USC as an also-ran, especially when you look at the record the last two years and the people we have," said Mike Gillespie, who has succeeded Rod Dedeaux as USC coach. "But down the road, we will get better and be able to play with people (the other Southern Division teams)."
Gillespie, an infielder on the Trojans' 1961 national championship team, returned to USC after coaching at College of the Canyons, where in 16 years he compiled a 418-165 record, won 11 league titles and three state junior college titles, including last year's.
"I'd like to believe that, game in and game out, we'll be pretty tough on offense," he said. "I think we can send nine pretty tough outs to the plate. But I don't think we can sit back and slug." he added, pointing out that he has players who run well and that USC would manufacture runs by stealing, bunting and using the hit and run.
The Trojans' top returning player is outfielder Terry Brown, a senior who batted .307 with 8 homers and 40 RBIs. Also back are Don Buford, who hit .287 and stole 17 bases in 21 tries and is moving back to second base from the outfield; center fielder Kevin Janik, who hit .291, and catcher Brian Nichols, .267.
Looming as a key newcomer is Keith Watkins, a transfer from Cal State Fullerton, where he batted .345 and was 18 for 26 stealing. He'll play the outfield and perhaps some first base.
Gillespie is concerned about the Trojans' lack of pitching depth, usually a problem at USC. There are no left-handed starters or any short relief specialists. He said that if a game is close in the late innings, Nichols will be the stopper.
"We worked on it during the fall," Gillespie said. "He pitched well. He throws hard and gets it over."
The top three starters are Darrin Beer, who was 14-1 with a 2.16 ERA last season at College of the Canyons, John Reilley, 2-8 with a 5.40 ERA, the only member of last year's staff, and freshman Mike Garcia from North High of Riverside.
With virtually the entire starting lineup and most of the pitching staff back, Pepperdine figures to be one of the West's--and the country's--strongest teams. The Waves are ranked eighth by Baseball America and 13th by Collegiate Baseball.
"We are excited about the prospects for the season," Coach Dave Gorrie said. "I think this team has the ingredients to have an outstanding season. Our roster is comprised of a good mixture of youth and experience, and our overall team depth is the best I've had at Pepperdine.
"On paper, this team has the potential to be one of the better teams in the West. . . . I certainly like our chances of earning an NCAA tournament berth."
Paul Faries, a fine defensive player, moves from third base to shortstop, where he'll replace the departed Andy Stankiewicz. Faries, a senior, led the Waves in hitting with a .356 average, RBIs with 50 and also stole 25 bases in 32 attempts.
Among those also back from the 38-21-2 club--19-5 in the WCAC--are junior center fielder Steve Kirkpatrick, who hit .343; sophomore first baseman Scott Schockey, .279 with 48 RBIs; sophomore right fielder Rick Hirtensteiner, .281 with 42 RBIs, and right fielder Steve Erickson, .290 with 45 RBIs and 21 stolen bases, a senior who caught last year.
The top newcomers are catcher Pete Kuld, who batted .360 with 17 homers for College of the Canyons, and first baseman-designated hitter Ruben Gonzalez, who hit .370 with 15 homers for Rancho Santiago College. Gorrie is looking to them to provide some power.
As for the pitching, the Waves will miss ace right-hander Mike Fetters, who had a 13-7 record, a 3.67 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 147 innings, but right-handers Tony Lewis, 10-3 with a 2.49 ERA, and Patrick Dubar, 7-6 with a 3.95 ERA, and left-hander Doug Simons, 6-1 with a 2.51 ERA, are back.
When a team loses a center fielder like Billy Bean, who hit .355, drove in 68 runs and committed just 2 errors, and pitchers such as Tim Layana and Mark Stomp, who accounted for 29 of that team's 50 wins, it might have a difficult time defending its title.
But then not every team has Chris Donnels playing third base, Jim McAnany catching, or Carl Fraticelli playing shortstop. Loyola has them, and Coach Dave Snow is optimistic that they, along with second baseman Bobby DeJardin and some other veterans, will help the Lions keep the WCAC title.
Donnels, the WCAC Player of the Year, batted .350, hit 21 homers and drove in 91 runs. McAnany, who hit .291 with 8 homers and 49 RBIs, set an NCAA record for getting hit by pitches 21 times and committed just 4 errors. Fraticelli hit .333 and also excelled defensively, making only 8 errors.
Snow thinks that the pitching staff will be deeper, despite the loss of Layana and Stomp. The top starters are right-hander Jeff Goettsch, who had a 9-5 record with a 3.93 ERA, and left-hander Eric Reinholtz, 5-1 with a 4.26 ERA. Expected to join the rotation is Steve Surico, a left-hander from Tustin High, where he was 10-2 with an 0.58 ERA.
In posting a 45-19 record--18-3 in winning the PCAA title--the Gauchos set numerous league offensive records, including overall team batting average, .348; league batting average, .362, and hits, 766. In all, 11 players batted at least .306, which may also be some kind of record.
But gone from perhaps the best team in Gaucho history are All-American second baseman Scott Cerny and All-PCAA third baseman Vince Teixeira. Still, Coach Al Ferrer appears to have more than enough offense for Santa Barbara to rate as the team to beat in the PCAA.
Back are outfielder Quinn Mack, who hit .393 with 9 homers and 54 RBIs; first baseman Greg Vella, .323 with 27 homers and 64 RBIs; shortstop Erik Johnson, .354 with 7 homers and 42 RBIs; outfielder Vance Pascua, .344 with 19 steals, and catcher Tim McKercher, .355.
Mack, who played right field last season, batted .467 in PCAA games. The brother of former UCLA star Shane Mack, he's making a name for himself as a hitter. "Quinn is Quinn," Ferrer said. "He'll be in either left or right. Either way, he's a great hitter."
The pitching of Mike Tresemer, 9-1 with a 3.39 ERA, will be missed, but Ferrer thinks the staff is more experienced and deeper. The top starters are left-hander Steve Connolly, 8-3 with a 4.39 ERA, and right-handers Mike Myers, 5-5 with a 5.16 ERA, and Dan Peters, 5-2 with a 5.60 ERA. Right-hander Lee Carballo, 5-4 with 5 saves and a 3.73 ERA, heads the bullpen.
"On paper, we are close to last year's team," Ferrer said. "I'd say that overall we are solid and should again compete for league honors."
Cal State Fullerton finished third in the PCAA last season. It was the second straight year that the Titans failed to win the title, noteworthy because they won the College World Series in 1984 and had won or shared 11 consecutive league titles.
Will the Titans, 36-21 overall and 12-9 in PCAA play, bounce back this season and challenge UC Santa Barbara? Probably not, according to Coach Augie Garrido.
"This is an underdog team," Garrido said. "It will not be favored to win the title. . . . It will have to go out and earn the respect of everyone. I see this as the team's responsibility as well as an opportunity to establish its own niche."
The Titans do have a couple of good pitchers in right-hander Mike Harkey, a preseason All-American, and left-hander Larry Casian. Harkey, a junior, was 9-6 with a 3.41 ERA, struck out 125 in 129 innings and had 7 of the staff's 16 complete games. Casian was 6-1 with a 2.84 ERA.
Harkey, 6 feet 5 inches and 210 pounds, pitched for the Fairbanks Goldpanners in the highly competitive Alaska semipro league last summer and had a 9-2 record with a 3.38 ERA. He was named the league's most valuable player.
"Two experienced veterans is a good start, but it is not enough for a pitching staff," Garrido said. "Casian will have to build off the maturity and experience he displayed last year. . . . Harkey's high regard is based on his professional potential, and his goal this year is to fulfill that potential over a full season."
The only starting position players back are shortstop Mark Razook, who hit .295, and outfielder-designated hitter Ken Garcia, who hit .308). He may move to third base. Two impressive newcomers are first baseman Keith Kaub of Golden West College and second baseman Mike Ross of Fresno City College.
All of the West's strong teams and best players aren't limited to Division I. The strongest Division II league in the country is the California Collegiate Athletic Assn.
The best in the CCAA appears to be Cal State Dominguez Hills, which won the title for the first time last season. The Toros, 32-22-1 and 19-11 in the CCAA, were ranked sixth in the nation in Collegiate Baseball's preseason Division II poll.
Offensively, the Toros, coached by Andy Lopez, will be led by senior left fielder Fred Hanker, .299 with 12 homers and 56 RBIs, and senior right fielder Jon Beuder, .338 with 50 RBIs. Beuder, however, has a hand injury and will be sidelined for at least three weeks.
Lopez thinks pitching will be the team's strength. The staff, the deepest in his five years as coach, is headed by senior right-handers Mike Asprey, 5-2 with a 2.67 ERA, lowest in the CCAA, and Brian Ayers, 8-6 with a 4.28 ERA.
"It's not that I think teams will be pointing toward us, as it is no longer an easy win to put Cal State Dominguez Hills on your schedule," Lopez said. "I'm optimistic about this year."
John Scolinos, in his 40th year of coaching, the 26th at Cal Poly Pomona, is the winningest active college coach with a 1,066-805 record. He thinks the Broncos can contend for the CCAA title.
"The strength of our team appears to be that we have some bona fide hitters," he said. "But bona fide pitching can beat bona fide hitting. Pitching is our question mark. The team that wins the conference will have the best pitching."
Left-hander Charlie Webb, 5-6 with 5 saves and a 4.11 ERA, is the only returning starter from last year's staff.