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Inside the Pac-12: Contender building in the Northwest

When Pat Casey built Oregon State into a perennial contender, he did so with Pacific Northwest recruits. From 2005-07, the Beavers appeared in three straight College World Series, winning two titles, and had Oregonians as the Friday night starters each year.

Stars of those teams came from places like Madras, Ontario, Salem, Forest Grove, Hillsboro, Oregon City, Portland. And there was a strong presence of players from north of the Oregon-Washington border, too.

That same talent formula has the Beavers ranked No. 2 this year, eyeing a second straight Pac-12 Conference championship and bidding to return to the CWS. All three weekend starters are Oregonians, two were Freshmen All-Americans and the third is the career wins leader at OSU.

OSU’s ascendancy in the Pac-12 brought with it new expectations at the other Northwest members of the conference. Oregon reinstated baseball after the Beavers won the second of their back-to-back CWS titles in 2007. The Ducks brought in a CWS championship coach to lead their reinvented program.

Washington went out and hired Lindsay Meggs in 2009. Owner of two Division II titles during his tenure at Chico State, Meggs has the Huskies challenging for the conference title in his fourth season.

Meggs leads the Huskies into Goss Stadium this weekend to face the Beavers in an apparent winner-take-all series for the conference crown. One game separates the two teams in the standings.

On the field, five OSU starters are from the state of Washington, one from Oregon, one from California. Three other players have rotated at the remaining position – first base – due to injury and performance; they’re from Utah, California and, gasp, Washington.

Where would the Huskies be if they had just kept Michael Conforto, Dylan Davis, Logan Ice, Trever Morrison and Caleb Hamilton in state? Washington started four Washingtonians on Tuesday against Seattle – including breakout senior Brian Wolfe and freshman Jack Meggs, the coach’s son.

This is the best season the Huskies have enjoyed since Tim Lincecum dominated on Montlake in 2006, when the Beavers introduced college baseball to the idea that a “northern school” could win the CWS.

In 2007, Conforto and Davis – teammates since childhood – watched OSU repeat as CWS champions during a visit to Omaha, Neb. They were sold on Oregon State as their eventual collegiate destination shortly thereafter.

Would circumstances have been different if Washington had been contending, consistently, for the conference championship then?

“Possibly, possibly,” said Conforto, who has rewritten the OSU offensive record book in his almost three years in Orange and Black. “We just loved the coaching staff and the atmosphere and it was tough to beat. Once we came here and visited, it was really no other option for us.”

Conforto and Davis were legends at Redmond, Wash., High. Their diamond exploits are still talked about reverentially by those who witnessed them. And their names carried weight with the three newest OSU starters from the Evergreen State: freshmen catcher Logan Ice, third baseman Caleb Hamilton and short stop Trever Morrison.

Add that Hamilton was going to walk-on at Washington before OSU entered the recruiting picture, and the Huskies may never know what heights they could achieve. They have not won a conference title since 1998, when UW won the North Division of the old divided Pac-10; conference unification came the following year.

Of course, it makes the Huskies’ accomplishments this season that much more impressive, too. Tyler Davis emerged as a dominant starter after a lackluster career – he’s tied with OSU’s Jace Fry for the conference lead in wins – and Wolfe trails only the Beavers’ Conforto and Jeff Hendrix in slugging percentage.

Washington pulled off the inexplicable in 2013, winning two of three against OSU in Seattle. It was the only conference series that the Beavers lost.

This year, with the series in Corvallis, the Pac-12 title truly hangs in the balance. An OSU sweep gives the crown to the Beavers. A Husky sweep gives Washington a two-game lead with three to play, and, maybe, the cachet to begin drawing a few more of the best in-state players in state.

That is a possibility that concerns many supporters, at least behind closed doors.