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Leadership Must Emerge at Cal State Fullerton

As embattled head coach Rick Vanderhook sits at home awaiting his fate to be decided by an administrative investigation, his Cal State Fullerton Titans continue to slide farther and farther.

The Titans (18-17, 3-6) lost their sixth in a row Wednesday night. Managing only six hits in the final 12 innings, Fullerton suffered a deflating 2-1 loss in 16 innings at Fresno State as questions, rumors and conjecture continue to swirl about the program and stable leadership still seems missing.

“Effective today, Cal State Fullerton’s head coach Rick Vanderhook has been placed on paid administrative leave. The university has received allegations that it is obligated to review.”

That’s what the school said in a short press release last Thursday mere hours before the Titans were to take on No. 3 Cal Poly in a crucial Big West series.

When asked if an investigation was mandatory upon the university receiving allegations, Cal State Fullerton media relations director Christopher Bugbee said the school has “parallel obligations” to the local community of the university as well as the NCAA to check into the matter. There has been no timetable set for when a decision on Vanderhook’s future will be made.

Though it is widely believed the allegation(s) brought forth is related to Vanderhook’s old school, fiery treatment of players, the school and the team has been tight-lipped about the situation.

The timing of Vanderhook’s paid administrative leave couldn’t have been worse for a team coming off its first conference loss in two seasons and in dire need of a strong weekend in San Luis Obispo.

Instead, without its vocal team frontman, the Titans dropped all three games, managing just three runs in the series — all three coming in Friday’s 13-inning, 4-3 loss.

Regardless of whether Vanderhook read the team the riot act, forced them to listen to Quiet Riot on repeat or had them conditioning with Boston Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi — none of which are as believable or as absurd as some of the theories being posited by the rumor mill — the preseason No. 1 team has not played up to its potential, particularly on the offensive side.

After scoring one run in 16 innings at Fresno State, Fullerton has now scored three or fewer runs in 16 games this season, amassing a 2-14 record. The team is batting .239 as a whole and have had underwhelming production from key veterans that were expected to make significant contributions.

The Titans were expecting a trio of returners to take on bigger offensive roles to fill the void in the middle of the diamond after the loss of Michael Lorenzen, Chad Wallach and Richy Pedroza in the middle of the diamond. Instead, centerfielder Austin Diemer (.311 to .230), catcher Jared Deacon (.300 to .186) and second baseman Jake Jefferies (.260 to .145) have seen major drops in their averages since last year.

Only Tanner Pinkston and J.D. Davis are hitting above .300 and even Matt Chapman (.267, 5 HR, 27 RBI) has struggled to find consistency, bouncing around the top of the lineup as Vanderhook and the coaching staff have tried to find the right lineup combination.

Prior to the investigation, Vanderhook blamed the team’s offensive struggles on a lack of leadership and agreed it was the biggest difference between this season’s underwhelming club and the squad that went 51-10 last year.

“Absolutely. They don’t hold each other accountable for anything — on the field or off the field,” Vanderhook said after the UC Santa Barbara series loss. “That is why we make mistake after mistake after mistake after mistake. We’ve made more mistakes through 31 games than I’ve ever had a team make in a full season.”

“They’re just too nice,” he said. “They don’t say a word to each other. I watch Diemer make mistake after mistake after mistake and I say, ‘Which one of you guys has the guts to say something to him? Does it always have to be me?'”

According to one veteran Titan earlier this year, the team’s biggest loss was the presence of Carlos Lopez, not only in the lineup with his .339 average, but more importantly in the locker room. Lopez had an uncanny ability of saying just the right thing. He was the “biggest diffuser I’ve ever seen,” the player said.

Balancing off Vanderhook’s brash coaching style, Lopez knew exactly when to go in and put his arm around a guy. If a player received a verbal lashing from the coaching staff, Lopez could go in and rebuild a guy’s confidence and/or further explain the coaching staff’s desires and the team’s needs.

Not every person is cut out to be a rah-rah type of leader. Personalities vary. Some people can move mountains with their words while others are all action and no talk. But every locker room needs someone to step forward and take on a leadership role.

Locker rooms without leaders are often dens of snark, envy and resentment and can be rife with turmoil. Personal glory and statistics can quickly begin to take precedence over team achievement and victories.

With 19 games remaining on the schedule and one of the top pitching staffs in the country, Cal State Fullerton still has an opportunity to put things together and make a run to continue its streak of 22 consecutive NCAA appearances. There’s still fight in the team as evidenced by the team battling to 13 innings at Cal Poly and 16 innings at Fresno State.

It’s still to be seen if Rick Vanderhook will be back with the team this week, this month, this year or at all. But regardless of the coaching staff around them, the Titans have to have leaders emerge from within the team.

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