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For Horton’s Ducks, the Excuses are Over

The Oregon Ducks football program didn’t become national championship caliber overnight.  They didn’t have their first 10-win season until 2000, and since have created a culture of winning that has made them into one of the elite football programs. George Horton knows what it takes to build a championship caliber team, and looks to be set to take the baseball program in only its third season to the same heights that the football program has scratched and clawed at for decades to establish.  “In our first meeting last year we talked about going to Omaha,” Horton says.  “If you don’t think about high goals and talk about them, you’re selling yourself short.  We even talked about going to Omaha in 2009.”

The Ducks took their first step towards that goal in 2010 through accomplishing minor goals.  In their first game of the season at Horton’s old stomping grounds of Cal State Fullerton, they went in and beat the Titans 7-3.  After having a rough weekend in Honolulu, they bounced back in April by ending the Arizona State Sun Devils 24 game winning streak to start the season, and then were the first of two teams all season to take a series at Jackie Robinson Stadium against UCLA.  With all those accomplishments though, there was still the letdown of going 1-4 against rival Oregon State, which won’t be forgotten in the 2011 campaign.

Winning a regional wasn’t in the cards though for Oregon, as they were placed in the Norwich (CT) Regional hosted by UConn, as well as eventual College World Series participant Florida State.  They took down the host Huskies twice in the tournament but lost twice to Florida State and were sent home.  Postseason appearances have been all but certain for Horton in the past.  “Wherever I’ve coached it’s been almost a given, and our goals and aspirations go beyond that.”

The Ducks got to the postseason on pitching, and their Friday ace Tyler Anderson returns for his junior season after going 7-5with a 2.98 ERA and 105 strikeouts last season. Anderson had a strong summer with the USA Collegiate National Team going 1-0 in three starts without letting up an earned run. He was ranked by College Baseball Daily as the 22nd best player in the country.  They lost their other two weekend starters,Justin LaTempa and Zack Thornton, to the draft, but have the arms to replace them.  Madison Boer and Alex Keudell are the most likely to fill in the Saturday-Sunday roles.  Boer had a great summer in the Northwoods league going 4-1 with a 0.89 ERA in 14 appearances out of the bullpen to go along with his 3-1 record with a 2.44 ERA for the Ducks last season, starting 4 games, and saving 5 contests.

Scott McGough (CBD’s 37th best player) will be the go-to-guy out of the bullpen, and it’ll be interesting to see what other pitchers step up out of that role. One name to watch out for is Porter Clayton, a 6’4 lefty who graduated high school early in order to be eligible to pitch this season.  The Idaho Falls, Idaho, native was a 2010 Under Amour High School All-American, and could provide a change of pace from the right handed McGough in relief.

The Ducks return most of their infield, with K.C. Serna (CBD 80th Best Player) and Danny Pulfer leading the way up the middle. Serna spent the summer with the Falmouth Commodores of the Cape Cod League, hitting .250 making the Western Division All-Star Team, while Pulfer returned to the Northwoods league to lead the Rochester Honkers. Their corner infielders Jack Marder and J.J. Altobelli will be supplanted by two freshmen, Stefan Sabol and Tyler Kuresa. Kuresa was an 11th round draft pick by the Twins, while some outfits had Sabol being drafted in the late first round, with the Braves taking a flyer to try and sign him in the 17th round.

Of his two heralded freshmen, Horton says, “Kuresa excels and fits in right away defensively, but his bat still needs to come around.  Sabol is the other way around and still has rough edges defensively.  With his athleticism, we’ve looked at him in the OF as well as 3B.” Sabol could end up behind the plate replacing Eddy Rodriguez eventually, while Paul Eshleman has the chance to take the role in the spring, the Ducks have multiple options with Brett Hambright waiting in the wings, as well as Sabol and fellow freshman Aaron Jones both looking to get playing time behind the plate as well.  Jones will also be vying for an outfield spot.  Jack Marder may also use his catching skills to get on the field if his bat doesn’t come around from a .249 performance last year, as he reportedly got reps behind the plate in fall ball.  There are lots of coaches around the country that would love to have the quandary that Horton has behind the plate.

One of Horton’s goals in recruiting is to attain more left handed bats in order to have a true West Coast offense, and that makes Kuresa’s role in the lineup seem more likely to be a sure thing.  As Coach Horton says, “You’re a little vulnerable if you’re too right handed, and lefties will get a bigger look than the righties.”  Speaking of lefties, Marcus Piazzisi returns for Oregon and seems to be the only outfielder with a role solidified.

With getting to the postseason, the expectations they have had for themselves have been met by the expectations from others.  A #9 ranking from Collegiate Baseball, behind conference foe UCLA but ahead of postseason stalwarts ASU and Stanford has made Oregon a target.  Most programs at this point would have the us-against-the-world mentality, but when your coach is George Horton, your grace period is short.  “With that number 9 ranking, I’d rather earn that ranking rather than just be given to me in a publication. I do think were ready to compete at the highest level, we have the culture, the upperclassmen and the experience necessary and I fully expect to make a run at the College World Series.”

That doesn’t mean the Ducks are overlooking the rest of the Pac-10, a conference Coach Horton believes hold some of the best teams in the country.  “Finally the Pac-10 got the respect it deserves with 8 teams getting in, it’s always been a league that’s been one of the best in the country.”

All Photos are courtesy of Eric Evans/UO Media Services