Colleges: 'Eaters lacking an ace

When it comes to Big West Conference baseball the last three seasons, UC Irvine has been better on opening night than the most bankable Broadway star.

The Anteaters have opened 24 straight conference weekend series with victories, thanks in large part to ace pitchers who have captured the last four Big West Pitcher of the Year awards.

But when Anteaters (14-8 heading into Wednesday's home matchup with USC) open the conference schedule Friday at home against Pacific, Coach Mike Gillespie and Jason Dietrich, in his second season as pitching coach, will have a less-bona fide option to fill the marquee spot in any collegiate rotation.

With 2011 ace Matt Summers, Danny Bibona (2010 and 2009) having proved to be unbeatable on Friday nights (or the occasional Thursday) against Big West foes the last two years, as well as 2008 Big West Pitcher of the Year Scott Gorgen all plying their trade professionally, UCI would already have to make due with an unproven Friday starter.

But injuries to Kyle Hooper, who had emerged as a vaunted ace until experiencing elbow pain during his outing at Nevada on March 16, and Matt Whitehouse, the top returner who has been sidelined by a balky rotator cuff, the 'Eaters will be hard-pressed to get off on the right, foot, er arm, against Big West rivals this season.

Hooper was had allowed just 11 hits and one earned run, with 25 strikeouts and only three walks in 23 innings, before giving up six hits and three earned runs in 4 2/3 innings in Reno. After trying to tough it out through elbow pain he initially experienced in the third inning, Hooper threw two 75 mph fastballs, before being quickly removed. But swelling from his right elbow to his right hand ensued and an MRI was scheduled Monday to try to determine the severity of the injury.

Whitehouse, who has allowed 16 hits and six earned runs in 13 innings, has not yet completely shaken offseason injuries that continue to slow his progress. Gillespie said they are targeting his return for the Cal State Fullerton series that begins April 13. But with so little work, he can hardly be expected to assume the leading role.

Sophomore Andrew Thurman has been starting the second game of weekend series recently and has won his last two decisions. Crosby Slaught, a fifth-year senior who is 19-5 in his career, has been starting the series finales of late.

The temptation is to shift either Thurman (2-1 with a 3.41 earned-run average in 31 2/3 innings) or Slaught (3-2, 2.53 in 32 innings). But against other Big West teams' aces, they may pale by comparison.

Both could also remain in their designated spots, leaving senior Nick Hoover (2-0, 1.06 in 17 innings), sophomore Phil Ferragamo (2-1, 3.63 in 22 1/3 innings) and sophomore Jimmy Litchfield (1-1, 4.15 in 13 innings) as potential Friday-night fodder.

Adding a sense of urgency is a conference schedule that features Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (with a conference-best 16 wins heading into Monday), No. 13-ranked Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State the next three series after Pacific, which brought a conference-worst 7-16 mark into this week.

Gillespie and Dietrich do have the deepest UCI staff in recent memory to try to cover the missing innings. But with an offense averaging just more than five runs per contest, and largely lacking power, the margin for error this season appears to be uncomfortably small.


The UCI men's volleyball team returns to action this week after playing no matches during finals last week. The Anteaters do so in sole possession of first place in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation standings.

Coach John Speraw's No. 1-ranked squad (18-3) is 14-3 in the MPSF as it plays host to UC Santa Barbara on Friday, before No. 3-ranked UCLA (13-3 in the MPSF) invades Crawford Court on Saturday. Both matches are at 7 p.m.

UCI still has MPSF showdowns at No. 2-ranked USC (April 7) and at No. 7-ranked Pepperdine (April 5).

But if it wins out, UCI will play host to the MPSF Tournament, from which the champion is guaranteed a berth in the Final Four, scheduled May 3 and May 5 at USC's Galen Center.

More important even than being at home is not having to play at BYU, where altitude and a throng of enthusiastic Cougar rooters, make success difficult.

Should UCI win the MPSF regular-season crown, it would also be a front-runner for the lone at-large berth into the Final Four, a nod that has traditionally gone to the MPSF winner, should it lose in the conference tournament.


UC Irvine senior CoCo Goodson, a two-time All-American, left Monday for Germany, where she was invited to train with Bayern Munich. If she performs well, it could lead to a professional opportunity.

Goodson was the 12th player taken in the January Women's Professional Soccer draft. But the league later suspended play for 2012.

Twitter: @BarryFaulkner5

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