Friday, February 1, 2008

Catching up with the Toreros

The USD baseball team opens practice each season with a weekend trip to the campground at San Elijo State Beach, about 25 miles north of the school's Alcala Park campus.

"It brings everbody together," said USD coach Rich Hill, in his office Thursday afternoon tying up loose ends just hours before practice officially begins for the 2008 season. "It's not a comfortable situation as far as camping when it's freezing cold and you're in a four-man tent. The ground is hard and wet. There's trains going by. There's all kinds of things going on that weekend. It's going through something tough together . . .

"Guys have to get to know each other. There has to be a level of trust within the family. Guys have to want to succeed and above all else they have to want the group to succeed. I think this accomplishes all that."

The Toreros are coming off the most successful season in school history, albeit one that ended abruptly with two straight losses (to Fresno State and Minnesota) in the NCAA Regional they hosted at San Diego State. USD rose as high as No. 4 in the nation last year. The Toreros are among the elite again coming into 2008, ranked No. 5 by, No. 7 by Collegiate Baseball, No. 9 by USA Today/ESPN and No. 11 by Baseball America.

"The anticipation level this year is as high as it's ever been," said Hill.

Much of the attention is focused on a pitching staff ranked top-to-bottom as the best in the nation. The weekend rotation with Brian Matusz, Josh Romanski and Matt Couch returns intact. Closer A.J. Griffin is back as well. There are other experienced returners in the bullpen and talented freshmen who will be pushing the veterans.

The question facing USD is on offense where the Toreros must replace the bats of catcher Jordan Abruzzo, second baseman Justn Snyder and right fielder Shane Buschini. Logan Gelbrich, who hit one of the more dramatic home runs in school history last year in the regional against Minnesota, replaces Abruzzo behind the plate. Senior Kevin Hansen is penciled in at second base. Vanderbilt transfer Ryan Davis will be in the outfield. In addition, the infield likely will have freshmen at the corners with Steven Kaupang at first and Victor Sanchez at third.

We'll see how quickly it comes together, but there is a noticeable difference around Cunningham Stadium compared to five or six years ago. Back then, the Toreros were still trying to break into the Top 25. It's expected now.

"We talked about a paradigm shift," said Hill. "We're much more comfortable being the team with the target on our chest. These teams like Fullerton and Long Beach State, USC back in the day, they're always going to the NCAA Tournament, always winning their (conference) championship.

"We look at ourselves like that . . . The bar has been raised. We walk out there with that attitude like, 'We're going to get it done, and this is how we're going to go about doing it . . .'

"This team has that swagger a little bit."

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