Although it has yet to play a game at the Division I level, the Cal State Northridge baseball team has been ranked among the nation’s top 25 teams by two notable magazines.
The Matadors, who will open their inaugural major-college season today at 2 p.m. (PST) in Phoenix with the first of three games over the weekend against Grand Canyon College, are rated No. 22 by Baseball America and No. 23 by Collegiate Baseball.
The problem is staying there.
“It’s better to be in there first and have a chance to prove that you deserve it than to be on the outside looking in and hoping you can bang your way in there somehow,” said Bill Kernen, CSUN’s third-year coach. “We should feel good about the fact we’ve been invited to the starting line.”
However, the race will be long and difficult. Fifteen of the Matadors’ first 18 games are on the road, and they are against such traditionally strong teams as Nevada Las Vegas, USC, Cal State Fullerton, Arizona, San Jose State and UC Santa Barbara.
“We’ve got a program here that’s got five scholarships, no Division I facility and not much community support other than a handful of real dedicated people,” Kernen said. “Compared to the opponents we’re going to be playing, we don’t have anything in terms of resources. We’re talking about a real David-and-Goliath deal here.”
Well, not quite. CSUN has a few things going for it, including roughly the same lineup that earned a berth in last season’s Division II championship game.
“Coach put it into minds last season that even though we were in a championship game in Montgomery, Alabama, for the Division II World Series that it wasn’t our final goal,” said CSUN’s Craig Clayton, an All-American last season. “Our goal all along has been to win it at Omaha.”
Omaha, Neb., is the site of the Division I College World Series.
Advancing that far in the program’s first season is a tall order, but Scott Sharts, a preseason Division I All-American according to one publication, pointed out that similar things have happened in the past.
“With a bunch of freshmen and sophomores, not a soul around here thought we’d be where we were last year, either,” he said.
Sharts, a 6-foot-6 junior right-hander who shed 20 pounds while picking up speed on his fastball during the off-season, will be a starting pitcher and the third-place hitter in the opener. He had a 6-3 record last season and batted .305 with 76 runs batted in and a school-record 29 home runs.
Batting before Sharts will be the familiar tandem of Clayton (.397) and Greg Shockey (.326), a pair of juniors who were in the same places much of last season. In the cleanup slot will be Denny Vigo, who was among last season’s team leaders with 19 home runs and 58 RBIs.
After Vigo, in order, will be Eric Johnson (.284), Mike Solar (.283), Scott Richardson (.285), Kyle Washington (.273) and Mike Sims (.246).
Grand Canyon, which also will be making its Division I debut, is expected to open with junior left-hander John Flores. Grand Canyon was the top-ranked team in the NAIA last season before being swept by the Matadors in a three-game series at CSUN. The Antelopes finished 43-27.
In the final two games of the series, CSUN’s Ken Kendrena, a junior right-hander who transferred from Cypress College, is expected to face right-hander Byron Browne on Saturday; Matador sophomore left-hander John Bushart (4-1 in ’90) will face right-hander Steve Wilkerson in the finale Sunday.
Kernen said both the pitching rotation and lineup are subject to change based on early-season results.