NEW ORDER : After Many Dismal Years, San Luis Obispo Has Championship Baseball Team
Over the years, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo has been a National Collegiate Athletic Assn. Division II power in track and field, cross-country, tennis and football.
But for most of its 59-year history, the San Luis Obispo baseball team has struggled.
“It has been frustrating,” said Steve McFarland, who has coached the Mustangs the last six years. “Neglected is the word.”
The successes of the baseball team have been few and far between.
In 1971, the Mustangs were 39-11 and ranked No. 2 in Division II but didn’t make the playoffs because they finished second to No. 1-ranked Cal State Northridge in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn.
In 1977, the Mustangs, featuring shortstop Ozzie Smith, were selected to the Division II regional as the second-place team in the conference but lost their first two games in the double-elimination playoffs.
Until this season, 1977 was the only time the Mustangs reached the NCAA playoffs. Also, the team had never won a CCAA title.
San Luis Obispo was 132-140 in McFarland’s first five years.
So, it was hardly tradition that was behind the Mustangs when they won their first Division II championship with a 9-5 victory over second-ranked New Haven last week at Montgomery, Ala.
Yet, despite the less-than-successful past, McFarland had reason to start the 1989 season with more optimism than usual.
The Mustangs were coming off a season in which they had finished with a 28-26 record and were third in the CCAA. They finished only three games out of first place and were in title contention until the final week of the season.
With most of its best players returning, San Luis Obispo was ranked No. 10 in Division II in a preseason poll. McFarland said the team began the season with confidence.
“We had a lot of guys from that team who had seen how it was and learned the difference between winning and losing,” McFarland said.
The coach said that the team’s goal at the start was to win the conference title.
“We couldn’t anticipate anything else because we hadn’t even been to the (NCAA) playoffs since 1977 and we didn’t know what would happen,” he said.
McFarland, who had played for the Mustangs in 1971 and 1972 and was an assistant coach in 1973, was all too familiar with San Luis Obispo’s past struggles to think otherwise.
“We had good teams in the past but we always had injuries or something else would happen to get in our way,” he said.
Even when his team held a comfortable lead in the conference with fewer than two weeks remaining in the season, McFarland said a lot of CCAA opponents were expecting the Mustangs fall.
“I think a lot of other teams in the league thought we weren’t going to win it,” he said. “We were going to slip up, like we had in the past. That sort of thinking was evident in talking to other coaches in the conference. I think Cal Poly Pomona (which finished second) thought that.”
But the Mustangs clinched at least a tie for the title by defeating Pomona in two of three games late in the season. He said the team also gathered momentum for the playoffs by splitting a two-game nonconference series against Cal State Sacramento in Sacramento the week before the regional.
“We split at Sacramento with our (Nos.) 3 and 4 pitchers,” he said. “We came back from that feeling good about ourselves against Sacramento State. We felt if we got the bid (to serve as host for) the regional, we could be in good shape.”
San Luis Obispo was selected as regional host and, after defeating Sacramento and losing to San Francisco State in its first two games in the double-elimination tournament, advanced to the Division II College World Series by sweeping its final two games against San Francisco.
In the World Series, the Mustangs took a difficult route to the title, losing their opening game in the double-elimination tournament to Lewis of Romeoville, Ill., before winning five consecutive games and the title.
McFarland said that the team’s pitching depth was the difference.
“We had four quality starters and each one was capable of coming through with an outstanding performance,” he said. “That was really the key for us.”
San Luis Obispo received perhaps its best pitching performance of the season in its third tournament game, when Bobby Ryan pitched a complete game in shutting out Lewis, 7-0.
For the season, the Mustangs were led by Dave Wilson with a 7-6 record and 3.00 earned-run average and Greg Paxton at 11-3 with a 3.33 ERA.
San Luis Obispo’s offense was led by first baseman Pat Kirby at .325, outfielders Billy Smith and Rich Shepperd at .313 and .310, respectively, and shortstop Ron Crowe, who had 11 home runs and 57 runs batted in.
McFarland said that the Mustangs, who finished 38-22, were not a team loaded with stars.
“There’s nobody that had a great year but we had a lot of guys that are very good college players,” he said. “If we had to pick an MVP, it would be very hard because we have five or six players at about the same level.”
The coach said the team’s lack of a superstar helped.
“I think everybody put aside their individual goals in statistics and just played baseball.”
McFarland also said that winning the championship has proven that, along with San Luis Obispo’s other top athletic teams, the Mustangs have a future in baseball.
“I think right now it has shown that this program can be successful and I think a lot of people doubted that in the past because of the conference we played in among other things,” McFarland said.
He said the school’s distance from the six other CCAA schools has made travel difficult. Also, he said the Mustangs do not have the best practice facility.
But for the moment, McFarland is willing to set aside the problems that have plagued the baseball program at San Luis Obispo. This time around, the Mustangs are champions.