The Cal State Northridge baseball team received a compliment a few weeks ago when Collegiate Baseball magazine published its preseason national rankings and deemed the Matadors the sixth best team in Division II.
The poll prominence pleases Terry Craven, who begins his fourth year as CSUN coach. But Craven is taking a wait-and-see attitude about the coming season, which begins today with an alumni game before officially opening with a two-game series Monday at Arizona State.
"A ranking that high? That's all based on your history," Craven said. "It's good to have it, but after a month everything changes."
Craven familiarized himself with change during the fall.
Last season, the Matadors mashed a school-record 103 home runs on their way to a 37-22 record and second-place finishes in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. (18-12) and NCAA Division II Western regional.
Gone from that team are first baseman John Balfanz (.308 avg. 16 home runs and 53 runs batted in), outfielder Jim Vatcher (.354, 15 HR, 49 RBIs) and pitchers Jeremy Hernandez and John LaRosa--all of whom are playing professional baseball. Dan Penner, who led the team in wins (10) and innings pitched (148.6), is now a CSUN assistant coach.
The Matadors will try to compensate for an expected power shortage this season with a hit-and-run approach that Craven hopes will electrify the offense and help ease the pressure on an inexperienced pitching staff.
"Last year we had big-inning type people and we won a lot of games in the last couple of innings or in our last at-bat," Craven said. "It was almost like we waited a lot of times for that to happen--and it happened a lot.
"This year, as of yet, we haven't proven that we can do that so we may have to utilize guys who can run and handle the bat well."
Unmasking those players has been a slower-than-expected process for Craven because of the number of new faces and NCAA rules that restrict the length of a baseball season to 70 games over a period of 26 weeks. CSUN worked out for eight weeks in the fall but was forced to cancel four of its scheduled 15 games against junior colleges because of rain.
As the Matadors begin their 55-game regular season, Craven is unsure what lies ahead for his team, which has been limited to mostly intrasquad scrimmages.
"Our hitting and defense look good and our pitchers have looked good throwing," Craven said. "But they haven't faced anybody except us. Everybody knows everyone else so it's not a true test."
The Matadors will get plenty of those by the time they complete a pre-conference schedule that includes games against Division I schools such as Arizona State, UCLA, Pepperdine, USC, Santa Clara, Cal State Fullerton, San Diego State and Fresno State.
"It's going to be real tough the first three weeks," Craven said. "We're going to find out right away where we're at. Who knows what's going to happen?"
The biggest mystery surrounding CSUN is the quality and depth of its pitching staff. As Craven said: "It's a giant question mark.".
Fili Martinez, a junior left-hander, will start the opener against Arizona State. Martinez, who Craven calls CSUN's most-improved player in the past three years, pitched in just six games last season, finishing with an 0-0 record and 2.08 earned-run average.
Leo Ramirez, who will start Tuesday against ASU, is a senior right-hander who was the Matadors' No. 4 starter last season. Ramirez was 1-2 last season with 1 save and a 4.18 ERA.
Geoff Curtis, a transfer from Taft College, will start and pitch in relief. The junior left-hander will be the first CSUN pitcher since Jason Thompson to also hit and play first base.
Cary Snyder, a junior right-hander from Mt. San Jacinto College, probably will be the fourth starter.
Junior right-handers Robert Wheatcroft (3-0, 5.02 ERA in 14.3 innings), and Dave Feeley, a transfer from Riverside City College, will be used in middle and long relief. Chris Zavatsky, a junior right-hander from College of the Canyons, is expected to be a stopper out of the bullpen.
"They're all guys who have been successful at the last level," Craven said. "But they don't have the big experience edge that the guys from last year had."
CSUN does, however, have an experienced catcher in senior Scott McIntyre, who is coming off arthroscopic knee surgery. Last season, McIntyre batted .299 and had 11 home runs and 36 RBIs. Valley College transfer Chae-Ho Chong and junior Rusty McLain will back McIntyre.
Rob Scott, a junior who batted .226 with 3 home runs and 17 RBIs, finally will get a chance to play regularly after spending the past two seasons behind Balfanz.
Second baseman Jimmy Mitchell, a senior, batted .268 with 4 home runs and 23 RBIs last season and should give the Matadors strength up the middle if he can avoid the injuries that have plagued him in the past.
Ted Weisfuss, a junior from College of the Canyons, will start at shortstop, but freshman Scott Strickland, who played for City Section 4-A Division champion Canoga Park, also will see action.
Senior Mark Hebert (.237, 1 HR, 7 RBIs) will start at third base and Dave Oravez, a transfer from Southern Mississippi, will be the team's utility player.
The Matadors strength lies in the outfield, where returning starters Mark Anderson and Lenn Gilmore will be joined by John Bonilla, a transfer from the University of San Diego.
Anderson, a senior left fielder, batted .369 with 13 home runs and 50 RBIs last season. Gilmore, a senior right fielder, batted .341 with 10 home runs and 48 RBIs.
Bonilla, a junior who will bat leadoff, gives the team solid defense in center field and speed on the basepaths.
Other players who will contend for playing time in the outfield include junior Mark Bowen, who batted .421 and .381 in two seasons at Pierce and junior Scott Stewart.
Craven is hoping the team's general inexperience can be overcome by the time the Matadors begin conference play. Defending CCAA and Western regional champion Cal State Dominguez Hills is ranked fourth in Division II and Cal Poly Pomona is ranked seventh.
"We want to play well in our pre-conference schedule against the Division I schools, and I think our pitching is good enough to keep us in games and give us a chance to win," Craven said. "It can turn out better than you think, or worse than you think, but you have to play it to find out."