In 35 years of Division I play, UC Davis’ Big West Conference rival Cal State Fullerton has never had a losing season.
The Titans have made 16 College World Series appearances and won four NCAA championships.
After a 51-10 season in 2013 — including a 23-4 league mark — veteran-filled Fullerton is not only picked to win the Big West, it is ranked No. 1 in the land.
The Aggies, coming off a 19-37 mark and a last-place conference finish, don’t care about all the pre-season rankings. A recent poll of Big West coaches has UCD picked dead last.
That’s water off a duck’s back to coach Matt Vaughn. Not a pitch has been thrown this spring. Those first curveballs will be served up Friday at 2 p.m. when Seattle comes to Dobbins Stadium for a four-game opening series.
Vaughn likes his young team. He expects it to improve from a defense-challenged 2013.
Is it going to push Fullerton, Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara for the league’s top rung? Don’t bet on it. But this is baseball. Stranger things have happened.
Vaughn believes his guys have learned from last year.
“We’re a year older,” the third-year skipper told The Enterprise. “Everyone has a year under their belts … not quite as many nerves. You focus on playing the game, not the opponent or the circumstances.”
That said, Vaughn has a handful of intriguing players who will be trying to prove the Big West majority wrong in their assessment of the Aggies as a cellar-dweller.
Brilliant second baseman Steve Patterson, a senior by way of San Joaquin Delta College, returns. He is lauded by his coach “as a player we will build around” after hitting .324 as a junior while driving in 33 runs with a .412 slugging percentage.
Junior Nick Lynch — who is in a dogfight for time at third base — led the 2013 Aggies at the plate with a .359 average. The St. Ignatius High grad is battling senior Adam Young for hot-corner status.
UCD struggled at shortstop last season and it was Young who moved to the position and gave the locals some stability there.
But Paul Politi has graduated. Gone with the former third baseman are a team-high five home runs, 36 RBIs and 41 runs.
If El Cerrito High junior Tino Lipson (.339, 31 runs and 10 steals) can hold down shortstop, it gives the Aggies depth on the left side.
Lipson and Evan Heptig at short, Young and Lynch at third.
Mix in sometime-pitcher/.356-hitter Spencer Henderson at first base and — at least going into the opening set against Seattle — there is experience and some punch in the infield.
Furthermore, Patterson and Lipson should be keys to the Aggies playing a more aggressive brand of baseball.
Behind the plate, Vaughn has a situation that most college coaches would love …
UCD has three capable catchers — and Vaughn sees each being used, similar to last season when Cameron Olson (.274), Spencer Brann (.272) and Izaak Silva (.220) shared time.
Sophomore Olson of River Valley High (Yuba City) led the trio with 16 runs batted in and hit the only homer in the group. San Benito grad Brann had the most starts (31) but only nine RBIs. He provides senior leadership with the pitching staff. Soquel junior Silva had 12 starts.
“No one really ran away with the position … they’ve all done really well in the fall and each is catching pretty good, so it’s probably going to be the guy that’s swinging it best that is going to be back there,” says Vaughn, adding that moving those starts around is OK by him.
“(Catcher) is a position where you need two or three good players anyway. All those guys are going to help.”
In the vast reaches of the Dobbins Stadium outfield, Vaughn has seven rostered outfielders from which to choose, and five have emerged.
In left, junior Austin March (Junipero Serra) and senior Seth Batty are competing to get their names penciled into the lineup card.
March started 16 games in 2013 and hit .217 — but did blast one of the Aggies’ 13 homers. Batty, who is by way of Buchanan High (Fresno), is a three-year varsity senior who got 24 starts last season while hitting .281. His nine doubles were UCD’s third-best number.
In center, Kevin Barker is another St. Ignatius product. He hit .244.
Right fielder John Williams of St. Francis High (Mountain View) is a returning left-handed hitter (.282) whose 38 RBI led all Aggies last season. Williams will get some backup help from Tanner Bily (.212).
On the mound, Vaughn points to a veteran trio that collectively went 8-22 in 2013.
Sophomore Spencer Koopmans (1-9, 5.54) and senior Evan Wolf (3-5, 4.58) join senior Harry Stanwyck (4-8, 4.79) in what figures to be the local starting rotation.
“Stanwyck on Fridays,” Vaughn says. “He did a great job in that role last year … gave us a chance to win most the games he pitched in. He’s a year more experienced, so we feel really good about him in that spot.”
Stanwyck (Castro Valley) should be followed by Koopmans (St. Teresa of San Jose) and Wolf (Clovis).
The trio didn’t blow anyone away — just 96 strikeouts in 237 innings last season — but with fewer than 90 walks and respectable ERAs, they could vault forward if the Aggies can cut down on errors (49) in crucial moments.
Max Cordy (McClatchy) and Craig Lanza (Monte Vista) were UCD’s closers a year ago (each had one of the team’s two saves), but Vaughn sees Cordy sneaking into extended chores while Lanza ultimately might become the closer. Time will tell.
And then there are freshman hurlers Orland Razzo and Zach Stone …
“These two guys, hopefully, will be ready to go,” Vaughn says with enthusiasm.
“Zach is from Eureka, the kind of place you don’t see a whole lot of guys come out of. But he’s a very good pitcher and had a great fall.
“He’s a very athletic kid who we think we can put in the games right away.”
Razzo is a 5-foot-11 lefty from Serra High (San Mateo) and Stone is a 6-1 right-hander.
It all starts Friday at home with Seattle.
Notes: The First Pitch BBQ will take place in the Bruce Edwards Club Room at Aggie Stadium after the final game of Saturday’s 11 a.m. twinbill. Dinner and a hosted bar cost $15. RSVP through Michelle Wolff at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-754-7548. … If UCD gets off to a fast start in the Big West, it will be especially noteworthy — the Aggies’ first six games are at No. 27 Cal Poly (March 28-30) and top-ranked Cal State Fullerton (April 4-6). … UCD was outscored last season, 363-297, while opponents outhit the Ags, .306-.283.
— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at email@example.com or 530-320-4456.