After 28 years since their last game, and 55 since their last College World Series appearance, the Oregon Ducks baseball team took the field February 20, 2009 at St. Mary’s in Moraga, Calif., marking the renaissance of the program.
Despite stealing away George Horton, one of the top coaches in the country, from Cal-State Fullerton, building a state of the art baseball stadium, reeling in the No. 2 recruiting class in the country, designing stylish new jerseys with the fight song stitched into the pinstripes (seriously), and oh yea, an endless supply of Phil Knight’s money, expectations were low.
And deservedly so.
It takes several seasons to build a competitive baseball team from scratch, especially in a conference that boasts at least five perennial national powers every year.
But Oregon isn’t your typical New To Division-1 Baseball program. When the Ducks do something, they like to do it big. You can call it grandiose, extravagance and even excessiveness, but whatever you want to call it, you have to admit that it works.
(The Ducks are forced to do something different – read: spend gobs of money – to create a comparative advantage – to the outrage of blue collar Beaver fans – in a sport that’s meant to be played in the California or Florida sunshine.)
Predictably, Oregon faced a difficult first season. After a walk-off season-opening victory over defending champs Fresno State, the team fell a part. Inexperienced, overwhelmed and outmanned, the Ducks fell victim to Pac-10 play, finishing an unsightly 14-42.
Fortunately, Horton and the youngsters took every loss as a learning experience, and look where the Ducks are now.
They beat then-ranked No. 1 ranked Arizona State two weeks ago, were a 2-1 loss away from sweeping Stanford at Sunken Diamond, and again took two of three from No. 1 UCLA at Jackie Robinson Stadium this weekend.
For those of you counting at home, that’s a 3-3 record against No. 1 ranked teams, two straight Pac-10 series victories, after not having won one for, oh, 30 years, and most importantly, are now ranked No. 18 in the country (according to Baseball America), and ahead of rival Oregon State, who dropped out of the poll after getting swept at home by Stanford.
If I had told a Beaver fan in 2008 that the Ducks would be ahead of OSU in the polls after just one and half seasons of D-1 baseball, they would have been more incredulous than when the Ducks rolled into Reser Stadium in and won 65-38, crushing their Rose Bowl hopes in the process (sorry, this never gets old).
Yes, we are now better at the one thing you pride yourselves at being better than us at. At least for now. (Well, except studying gay sheep. I think you’ll always have the edge there.)
So what’s the difference to this year’s 23-12 record?
Another year under George Horton.
“I think last season, Coach Horton had a unique group, and he wasn’t real sure how to get on us. If he would get vocal and yell, some guys on the team would go into a shell. Then he would be a little too nice,” Oregon pitcher Tyler Anderson said to Rivals. “This year, it doesn’t really matter to anyone if someone goes into a shell. They’re going to let us know when we’re not doing things right. As a result, I think the team has responded in a big way so far this season.”
Uh, ya think?
Last season, the Ducks finished with a .227 batting average and a 5.07 ERA. This year? So far, a .276 team batting average and a 2.92 ERA, good for third in the country, ranking behind only UCLA and Texas.
So considering how this is only Year Two, how bright is Oregon’s future?
“We absolutely have an Omaha type of pitching staff [this year]. I’m not even sure I’ve ever been around a staff this deep in quality pitchers,” Horton said.
With that being said, Oregon, ranked in the top 20, is a prime contender for an NCAA regional.
Even if the Ducks stumble down the stretch, they will have accomplished more this year than anyone could have ever imagined. And they’ll only be deeper next year.
Which just goes to show how buying a top coach, state of the art facilities and cool jerseys can go a long way on the recruiting trail, and eventually, in the wins column.
I think Pat Kilkenny has taken notes, and is trying to employ this strategy with the basketball team. As it embarrassing as the situation may seem now, if he gets the right guy, things can turn around quickly.
And I think he will.
The opportunity to build a national power can be enticing. Just ask George Horton.