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Colleges column: Giving a final tip of the cap

Daily Pilot

Who better than Francis Larson to wax philosophical about the 2010 UC Irvine baseball season?

UCI Coach Mike Gillespie says the senior catcher is the only player he has ever had who can tell you the difference between Socrates and Plato.

“This is how baseball works,” said Larson, a philosophy major who blasted three home runs and drove in eight runs in four games at the NCAA Los Angeles Regional that ended Sunday with a 6-2 loss to UCLA. “Sometimes you lose; sometimes you win. But it has been a lot of fun. It has been a fun group of guys to be with. I had fun the whole time and I’m glad to have been a part of it.”

The “it” of which UCI’s career home-run leader (25) spoke was not only his swan-song campaign that produced a 39-21 record. His statement included the four-year run for the nine seniors, most of whom were part of an unprecedented run of success that included a trip to the 2007 College World Series.


These seniors, seven of whom were wide-eyed freshmen in uniform in Omaha, have been to four regionals, two super regionals and the aforementioned World Series, where they also made history and spawned the birth of ‘Eater Nation.

Pitchers Danny Bibona and Eric Pettis have earned All-American honors, while pitcher Christian Bergman was a preseason All-American and Sean Madigan, a redshirt junior who may return next season, was a freshman All-American.

Bibona, picked in the eighth round by the St. Louis Cardinals in the MLB draft, has been the Big West Conference Pitcher of the Year the last two seasons, while Pettis (picked in the 35th round by the Phillies), Larson (22nd, Los Angeles Angels) and Bergman (24th, Colorado Rockies) have all garnered first-team all-conference laurels.

Jeff Cusick, a second-team all conference pick, led the team in almost every offensive category, including hitting (.379) home runs (eight, tied with Larson) doubles (21 giving him a school-career-record 52), and runs batted in (62 second-most in school history). His senior season was a testament to his talent, work ethic and mentality. He was picked in the 18th round by the Philadelphia Phillies.


Seniors Kyle Necke (who sat out 2007 with an arm injury) and Dillon Bell have also made big contributions, while senior Casey Stevenson (25th, New York Yankees), who played his final three collegiate seasons at UCI, was a three-year starter and a postseason force his entire career. Necke was picked in the 34th round by the Minnesota Twins.

Bibona set the school record with 332 career strikeouts, went 31-7 and had a 3.06 career ERA.

Pettis amassed 40 saves and went 22-10 with a 3.69 career ERA, while Bergman went 23-13 with a career ERA of 3.35.

Gillespie said the seniors will be missed, on and off the field.

“It has been a pleasure,” Gillespie said. “We count our blessings that we have had these guys and they have really had remarkable success. I’m sure they all would have liked to have kept playing longer each year, but it’s been a great group and we’ve been lucky. We’re going to miss this group for sure. We’re going to take a big hit with the loss of this group of guys.”

UCI has averaged just more than 43 wins the last four years, including a 22-2 conference record in 2009 that produced the program’s first Big West championship.

And, just as impressive as their numbers between the lines, was the character they showed.

“First and foremost [upon arriving before the 2008 season], what we found out in a hurry was that we really inherited a group of quality people who displayed work ethic, accountability and responsibility on the field and in the classroom,” Gillespie said. “There was never an issue off the field.”


And while the seniors, including injury-plagued former Orange Coast College star Cory Olson, as well as some others who may venture off to the professional ranks, walked off the field Sunday, the team that will step out of the UCI dugout next season will surely include some emerging stars.

Pitcher Evan Brock, an all-regional performer, distinguished himself as a future force on the mound, while Jordan Leyland’s two home runs, two doubles and five RBIs on the way to all-regional honors, bode well for what could be a prolific offensive future.

Ronnie Shaeffer will return two years removed from a freshman All-American campaign in which he flirted with .400, while shortstop D.J Crumlich, Matt Summers, Tommy Reyes and Jordan Fox have all shown they are capable of succeeding on this level.

Crosby Slaught, 8-0 as a sophomore in 2009, is also expected to return after a year of arm problems.

Madigan, Drew Hillman, Brian Hernandez, Ryan Fisher, Nick Hoover and Jon Hurst are all draft-eligible, as is Slaught. But they may also return if they are either not drafted or do not sign. Madigan, set to graduate this month, may or may not choose to fulfill his final year of eligibility.

And there is buzz about the incoming recruiting class, which is heavy on pitching.

But for now UCI rooters should look back, before they look forward. And they should all tip their cap to those who will move on.