College baseball: Transfers bolster UCI lineup

Daily Pilot

A common notion about community college transfers is that they take a year to make the adjustment to Division I baseball.

And despite generating vastly different expectations upon arriving from their respective two-year programs, UC Irvine juniors Drew Hillman and Jon Hurst have just about proved that thinking to be true.

Hillman was an All-American at Orange Coast College who had UCI coaches buzzing about his offensive prowess in the fall.

Hurst, a two-time All-Orange Empire Conference performer at Cypress College, was a borderline washout after an underwhelming fall.

Both also dealt with foot injuries that sidelined them for a brief time during the regular season.

Yet, heading into today's Los Angeles Regional opener against No. 23-ranked LSU (40-20) at 2 p.m. at UCLA's Jackie Robinson Stadium, both have generated recent hot streaks that have helped them secure their spot in the lineup.

"Hillman was just lights out in the fall and everyone had this realization that we really had a special hitter," UCI Coach Mike Gillespie said. "Then, the beginning of the season was rough for him."

Hillman, who was out for a time with plantar fasciitis, was hitting .236 on May 8.

Since, he is 11 for 21 (a cool .524) with one home run, four extra-base hits and five runs batted in. He enters today batting .316 in 76 at-bats, with two homers and 16 RBIs for the No. 21-ranked 'Eaters (39-17).

"For him to get in there and do what he did [since May 8] has been a real jolt of energy, because everybody knew it was there," Gillespie said.

Hillman, among a half-dozen players who have battled for playing time in the outfield this season, said he is pleased to be fulfilling some of the potential predicted for him.

"It's great to finally be able to contribute to this team in some way besides cheering them on from the bench," Hillman said. "It's great to get in there and prove to my teammates and coaches and everyone else that I can play at this level."

Hillman, who also starred in basketball at El Toro High, said his extended stay on the bench was the first of his athletic career.

"It has been a frustrating year, having to wait it out to get the opportunity," Hillman said. "I don't know how I got hot all of a sudden, I honestly can't tell you. But I'm not complaining at all."

Hurst struggled so badly during the fall, he said he wondered whether he would even be a part of the program.

Though he had four hits in his first eight at-bats, a three-for-19 stretch later dropped his average to .304 on May 11. Since then, he is 10 for 25 (a .400 clip) with five RBIs, two doubles and a triple.

Entering today's game, the Anteaters' first in the four-team, double-elimination regional, Hurst is hitting .338 in 71 at-bats with 12 RBIs.

Having gone through the same initial struggles before earning a starting spot during his freshman year at Cypress, the former El Modena High star said he knew from experience that he could turn it around.

"After the fall, I wasn't sure what the future held for me," Hurst said. "The fall was definitely subpar in my eyes.

"I had to grow quickly and understand that I'm not going to be given the same pitches here that I was in the past; and that when I get those pitches, I can't miss them.

"I would say it was just about the same exact experience for me [at Cypress]. I remember thinking [in January] that there is a good chance I could still do this and it was almost like I was looking forward to it, cause it was a challenge."

Gillespie said Hurst's emergence has been perhaps the biggest surprise of the season.

"I think Hurst is a great story," Gillespie said. "He struggled during the fall, but his batting practice and intra-squad stuff just got better. Then, he got in there a couple of times and got a couple of hits. That brought him another chance and he has made the most of it."

Hurst was temporarily derailed by a sprained ankle that limited him to one at-bat over a two-week span in April.

Still, Hurst is not about to take his current good fortune for granted.

"There have been two or three times this year when I've called my dad and told him that I thought I had won a job here," Hurst said. "But things change here so regularly, you can't get too high or too low."

Hillman and Hurst said they will cherish their first Division I postseason experience.

"It should be a lot of fun and there should be a lot of adrenaline going," Hillman said.

Added Hurst, "I've been dreaming about this for a long time. I'm going to get the opportunity to play against LSU in Division I postseason college baseball. It seems a little surreal to me, but, at the same time, I'm nowhere nervous. If anything, I'm anxious to get started."

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