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Cal State Fullerton heading back to Stanford for NCAA regional; UCLA will travel to Minnesota

Cal State Fullerton heading back to Stanford for NCAA regional; UCLA will travel to Minnesota
Fullerton's Hank LoForte lays down a bunt during a game this season. (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)
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The Cal State Fullerton baseball team huddled together inside BIGS sports bar at high-top tables surrounded by multiple televisions to learn that they’ll be traveling to Stanford this weekend for an NCAA regional.

Baylor (36-19) and Wright State (39-15) complete the four-team corner of the 64-team bracket that opens with the Titans (32-23) taking on Baylor at 2 p.m. Friday.

UCLA was the only other local team to qualify, and the Bruins (36-19) will travel to Minneapolis for the Minnesota Regional.

“I’m happy to be in the tournament,” Fullerton coach Rick Vanderhook said. “I think our guys grinded ... to get in there and not have to sit and wait and see if they’d be chosen.”

The Titans are making their 27th consecutive postseason appearance, but playing in the tournament wasn’t a foregone conclusion early in the season.

Despite advancing to the College World Series last season and a history of postseason success that includes four national titles, the Titans opened the season at 1-7, including a three-game season-opening sweep at Stanford.

“It was so tough,” second baseman Hank LoForte said, “because the coaches were on us, we were down on ourselves and players that were supposed to perform weren’t performing, so we were scrambling.”

The scrambling halted in Big West play, and Fullerton won the conference crown before the final series of the regular season. Players said the rebound was never in doubt.

“Every year, it’s an expectation,” LoForte said. “We know we’re gonna come back.”

The conference title meant the Titans and their fans already knew the team was in the tournament before Monday morning. Players, fans and even university President Fram Virgee nevertheless showed up to see where the Titans would play next.

The draw that features No. 2-overall seed Stanford (44-10) received positive feedback from Vanderhook. He said his team will benefit from a season’s worth of maturation against a team the Titans couldn’t beat earlier this year.

“We’re a little different now — that’s for sure,” he said. “We went up there and they were old and we were young. Now we’re both old.”

While Fullerton is No. 3 in its bracket, UCLA is No. 2 in Minnesota. The Bruins will open regional play at 2 p.m. Friday against Gonzaga (32-22). Canisius (35-20) later plays Minnesota (41-13).

UCLA played in a regional last season but was eliminated in two games. This year marks the program’s third consecutive postseason appearance.

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The Bruins have won five of their last seven games, including their season finale against Oergon State, which is seeded No. 3 overall.

Fullerton, meanwhile, has won 14 of its last 18. So despite the rough start for the Titans, beer mugs and mimosa glasses still cluttered the bar at BIGS on Monday, with fans eager to see where their team landed .

“There’s always just butterflies in your stomach,” LoForte said.

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