The 2008 National Champions came from the most unlikely of teams in the most unlikely of conferences. The Fresno State Bulldogs’ run through the College World Series put WAC baseball back on the map after the conference had lost some of it’s luster after the many realignments caused by their football brethren. The Bulldogs’ magical run resulted in the school’s first National Championship, unprecedented publicity for the school and the conference and earned them ESPY nominations and SI.com’s Sportsman of the Year award. But that was 2008. This is 2009. Can the league built off the shot in the arm it received from Fresno State’s run? Will Fresno State win their fourth WAC title in a row or will they succumb to the bulls-eye that will be on their backs from opening day?
Fresno State: The Bulldogs were picked by the league’s seven head coaches to win the league title again. If they’re to do it however they’ll have to do so without most of their starting rotation from 2008. The Bulldogs lose starting pitchers Clayton Allison, Justin Miller, Justin Wilson, Tanner Scheppers (who did not play after suffering an injury late season) and closer Brandon Burke.
They do however return a slew of infielders including Preseason Player of the Year pick (and CWS Most Outstanding Player) Tommy Mendonca, sophomore Danny Muno, senior Gavin Hedstrom and junior outfielder Steve Detwiler. The Bulldog quartet earned Preseason All-WAC Team honors as well and will be looked upon to lead this new group of Bulldogs in defense of their conference and national title.
In all the Bulldogs welcome 21 new faces to the team highlighted by a 2009 freshman class that was ranked No. 10 by Baseball America.
The schedule for the Bulldogs is quite favorable as they leave the state of California just once before April 17th, that being a trip to Eugene, OR to face the Ducks. The Bulldogs travel outside of California just once in conference play, a trip to Ruston, before the conference tournament which will be held in Hawai’i this season.
San Jose State: The Spartans were picked to finish second in the league and picked up one first place vote. San Jose State returns 2008 second-team All-WAC selection Max Peterson, 2007 Freshman All-America and second-team All-WAC pick Kyle Bellows, 2008 Freshman All-American Danny Stienstra, and a pair of senior pitchers in David Berner and Scott Sobczak. Head Coach Sam Piraro will look to notch his 700th at his alma mater. He enters the new season with an overall record at San Jose State of 685-520-6.
The Spartans have just two series outside the state of California, both in conference play as they face Hawai’i in Honolulu and New Mexico State in Las Cruces, N.M. They’ll host defending national champion Fresno State at home as well as their annual two-game home and home rivalry series with Stanford.
Nevada: Picked to finish third in the league the Wolf Pack are coming off a 34-26 season and a second place finish in the WAC in 2008 at 18-14. The Pack returns just four starting position players and two starting pitchers but 15 overall letterwinners from last season’s squad. The returnees are highlighted by Matt Bowman and Shaun Kort. Bowman hit .355 and had 36 RBIs last season playing in left field but will move to second base this season. Kort is the team’s starting first baseman an dhit .324 and drove in 60 runs last season.
The Wolf Pack’s schedule will see them face Gonzaga and #10 Missouri to start the season as well as games against Pac-10 foes Washington and Oregon. The conference schedule will see the Wolf Pack travel to Ruston, LA, San Jose, CA and Fresno CA.
Hawai’i: The Warriors were picked to finish fourth in the league and look to avoid the same curse that plagued 2008 WAC tournament Host Louisiana Tech as only six teams of the seven make the conference tournament each season. Hawai’i returns a pair of impact players in junior Vinny Catricala and sophomore Jeff Van Doornum. Catricala had five home runs and drove in 37 RBI in 2008 while Van Doornum drove in 44 runs and had 21 doubles.
The preseason Pitcher of the Year also hails from the Warriors. Jared Alexander earned First Team All-WAC honors in 2008 going 7-3 with a 3.27 ERA in 12 starts. He will miss the first few weeks of action but when he returns he will provide a huge boost on the mound.
The Warriors boast a very tough non-conference schedule as they open with a four game series against #9 UC-Irvine at home. The schedule also includes Mississippi State, Oregon State, Coastal Carolina, Arizona State and Fresno State.
New Mexico State: Picked to finish 5th in the league, the Aggies are hoping to build on their first ever WAC tournament appearance which they made last season. The Aggie bats should be strong once again as head coach Rocky Ward thinks this could be one of the better offensive clubs he’s put together. The Aggies graduated Joseph Scaperotta, Joe Leghorn and Marcus Quade among their nine seniors last season.
If the Aggies are to be a contender in the league their defense must improve over last season. The Aggies committed 138 errors, 47 more errors than the next closest team, Louisiana Tech.
The Aggies return a solid core of pitching with the return of Tyler Sturdevant, Heath Goin, Sebastien Vendette, Noah Garza and closer Erik Nyquist but the health of Tyler Sturdevant will be a big key for the Aggies to be successful.
The Aggies open the season with 22 of their first 23 at home with their lone road trip an in-state trip to face rival New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Louisiana Tech: The Bulldogs missed the WAC tournament last season even though they were the host school. La. Tech finished the 2008 season with a record of 23-31 but went just 7-23 in the Western Athletic Conference finishing in seventh place. The Bulldogs return 16 lettermen from last season’s team and six seniors: catcher Matt Combs, shortstop Nick Grunenwald, third baseman Chris Kersten, pitcher Dylan Moseley, outfielder Patrick Thomas and second baseman Kevin Winn.
The Bulldogs’ schedule includes series against Stephen F. Austin, Southern Miss, Dallas Baptist as well as the conference schedule that includes trips to San Jose State, Sacramento State and Hawai’i.
Sacramento State: The Hornets return junior outfielder Tim Wheeler among its . Wheeler was named preseason third team All-American by Baseball America. However, Sacramento State loses four All-WAC performers from last season’s squad, Ryan Blair, David Flores, Gabe Jacobo and Wes Oberlin, all four players hit above .330 last season.
The Hornets will welcome 12 new players including six true freshmen. The good news for the Hornets is that they return three of four starting pitchers.
The Hornets’ schedule includes an opening weekend series at Arizona. They will also face the West Coast Conference’s Santa Clara, St. Mary’s and San Francisco as well as three of Big West opponents in Pacific, Cal Poly and UC Davis. The Hornets’ conference trips include trips to New Mexico State, Hawai’i and Nevada.
Preseason All-WAC Team
OF Gavin Hedstrom, Sr., Fresno State
OF Steve Detwiler, Jr., Fresno State
OF Richard Stout, Sr., New Mexico State
OF Tim Wheeler, Jr., Sacramento State
1B Shaun Kort, Jr., Nevada
2B Matt Bowman, Sr., Nevada
SS Danny Muno, So., Fresno State
3B Tommy Mendonca, Jr., Fresno State
C Landon Hernandez, Sr., Hawai‘i
UTI Tyson Jaquez, Sr., Nevada
SP Jared Alexander, Sr., Hawai‘i
SP Tyler Sturdevant, Sr., New Mexico State
SP Max Peterson, Jr., San Jose State
RP Josh Slaats, So., Hawai‘i
RP Erik Nyquist, Sr., New Mexico State
Player of the Year
Tommy Mendonca, Jr., Fresno State
Pitcher of the Year
Jared Alexander, Sr., Hawai‘i
Baseball America Preseason All-Americans
3B, Tommy Mendonca, Fresno State – First Team
CF, Tim Wheeler, Sacramento State – Third Team
Brooks Wallace Award Player of the Year Preseason Watch List
1B, Alan Ahmady, Fresno State
3B, Tommy Mendonca, Fresno State
1B, Chris Auten, New Mexico State
CF, Tim Wheeler, Sacramento State
1B, Danny Stienstra, San Jose State