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CBD Column: Southern California Weekend Preview

“Hope rises each spring like sap in the trees. That’s part of baseball, one of the greatest things about the game. You have the annual rebirth no matter how disastrous the previous year was.”

Former Major League front office executive Harry Dalton’s quote is one of my favorites. It embodies the optimism every baseball team and fan feels heading into Opening Day or Opening Weekend.

No matter how terrible the previous year might have been, there’s always a never-ending naivety right before the season begins that a championship run could be in store.

For college baseball, teams and fans will finally get a glimpse at whether that entrancing fountain of belief is true or merely false hope. Today, the Division I schedule opens and teams will be able to see if they have the potential to be a team destined for greatness.

Where They’ll Be This Weekend

In SoCal:
Virginia Commonwealth at Long Beach St.
UNLV at Loyola Marymount
#19 Oklahoma at Pepperdine
Washington at San Diego St.
Maryland at #14 UCLA
Brigham Young at UC Riverside
Jacksonville at USC

On the Road:
#25 Cal State Fullerton at #1 Florida
Cal State Northridge at Sacramento St.
San Diego at Sam Hoston St.
UC Irvine in Houston for Urban Invitational
vs. Alabama St.
vs. Southern
vs. Texas Southern

All Eyes On:
Vanderhook’s Big Debut – Taking over for the departed Dave Serrano won’t be an easy task and since it is his first head coaching job, Rick Vanderhook should ease into the schedule and get a couple of easy Ws under the belt…right?

As long as you classify traveling across the country to take on the preseason No. 1 and championship favorite, Florida Gators, as easy. The Gators feature four players on the CBD All-American first team and three other players that ranked in our Top 100.

Fullerton counters with stud centerfielder Michael Lorenzen and an experienced starter in Dylan Floro, who takes over Friday night duties. However, the pitching staff was gutted when eight pitchers signed. Only Floro and Christian Coronado have pitched for the Titans. Redshirt freshman Grahamm Wiest will start Saturday, but Sunday is still up in the air.

Taking a single game may be an accomplishment this weekend for Fullerton, but a lead late would give Vanderhook an opportunity to use his star sophomore, Lorenzen, in the closer role.

Around the Horn:

Sophomore Showdown – Another pair of sophomores rated among the top 25 prospects of the class are Pepperdine’s Scott Frazier and Oklahoma’s Jonathan Gray, who will matchup Saturday afternoon in Malibu. Both pitchers are looking to make an early impression after not making an impact for the their teams last year.

For Frazier, he is hoping to get off to a strong and healthy start after pitching only 18 innings last season due to arm tenderness. The 6-foot-6 righty was solid in those 18 innings, compiling a 2-1 record with 1.00 ERA in four starts.

Gray took the junior college route playing for Eastern Oklahoma. Listed at 6-foot-4, 239 pounds, the righty consistently throws a low-to-mid 90s fastball that has been reported to touch 97 mph.

Return to Power? – Once powerhouse staples eating heartily at the NCAA Tournament dinner table and College World Series dessert bar, USC and Long Beach State have recently become poor beggars unable to get a single morsel.

Long Beach State has failed to make the postseason three years in a row after only missing it three years the previous 20 years. The Trojans drought has been even longer and more historic. USC hasn’t had a winning record since 2005 — the longest drought in the storied program’s history.

A pair of coaches are hoping to return the programs back to the supper table in their second year at the helm. Troy Buckley, once the pitching coach at Long Beach, led the Dirtbags to a winning record last season while Frank Cruz had his USC squad playing its best ball in several years at the end of last season, winning series against No. 6 Arizona State and at No. 2 Oregon State on back-to-back weekends.

Each team knows the importance of getting off to a strong start after struggling last season. Long Beach started 3-6 while USC was 4-10. The Dirtbags host Virginia Commonwealth, a team predicted to finish in the middle of the Colonial Athletic Association. USC gets a tougher test with a Jacksonville squad the features Adam Brett Walker, a second-team preseason All-American member at first base, and Dan Gulbransen, an outfielder that hit above .300 in the Cape Cod League last summer.

Strasburg Honored – San Diego State head coach Tony Gwynn is unlikely to be in attendance for tonight’s opener due to his recent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor inside his cheek, but the second-most famous Aztec baseball player will be in the house. Flamethrower Stephen Strasburg will have his number 37 retired by the school in a ceremony before tonight’s game.

Strasburg’s incredible junior campaign featured a 13-1 record, a 1.32 ERA, 195 strikeouts and only 19 walks in 109 innings and culminated with him being named the 2009 Golden Spikes Award winner. He was then selected No. 1 overall in the 2009 MLB Draft by the Washington Nationals.

Replacing Aces – Speaking of top picks and Golden Spikes recipients, it will be interesting to see how UCLA’s young pitching staff fills the void after the Bruins’ pair of aces were drafted No. 1 and No. 4 overall last year. No longer is UCLA simply the ‘Cole and Bauer Show.’

Without top pick Gerrit Cole and 2011 Golden Spikes Award winner Trevor Bauer, the Bruins will turn to the top prospects they have been stockpiling the last few years. Last year’s Sunday starter, Adam Plutko, takes over the Friday night role while Nick Vander Tuig moves from closer to Saturday starter. Fellow former reliever, Zach Weiss will also move into the starting rotation.

UCLA has a veteran lineup led by a trio of juniors in the outfield, but it’ll only go as far as its young pitchers carry them. They open the season at Jackie Robinson Stadium against a middle-to-bottom of the ACC pack in Maryland.