Over a three-day period in the early fall of 2007, Cal State Fullerton baseball was turned upside-down when long-time coach George Horton, announced he would part ways with the program he had spent a better part of 20 years building as a player and coach. Horton, having just guided a fifth-place conference team to the College World Series, left for the challenging task of building a program from the ground up at the University of Oregon, a decision that sent a shockwave throughout college baseball.
Within a week's time, Fullerton was making waves of its own, luring back Baseball America's 2007 National Coach of the Year Dave Serrano. No stranger to Titan baseball, Serrano returned to Fullerton after having spent time in Goodwin Field's third base dugout from 1997-2004 as Horton's assistant. With his cross-conference position change, Serrano was faced with the daunting task of rallying a group of stunned players with whom he had little-to-no relationship with and turning the Titans right-side up.
Fast-forward four months and Serrano and his staff of Sergio Brown, Greg Bergeron and Brett Lindgren have earned their player's trust and are moving full steam ahead, armed with a talented group of young men who are ready to go into battle with their new head coach beginning on Feb. 22.
"It's taken us until the end of December and early January to completely settle in, but we do feel more comfortable now and we're ready to go," Serrano said from his chair across his desk. "I know this coaching staff has fully adapted to this group of young men and I feel those same young men have adapted to us."
The Titans of a year ago were saddled with injuries, a light-hitting offense and the inability to find a proficient third starter behind Wes Roemer and Jeff Kaplan. Nevertheless, the team was able to sneak into the NCAA playoffs with some early and late series wins against ranked opponents. But thanks to a solid recruiting effort by the former regime, it looks as if the holes from last season have been more than adequately filled and Serrano will have a very athletic team that can hit, run, field and pitch.
"I am well aware of what went on with this program last year and I am pleasantly surprised as to how the holes have been significantly filled in." Serrano said. "I am starting to feel more and more every day just how special this team can be if all things click like we are hoping and anticipating they will."
Without even playing a game, Serrano feels that one of the Titans' biggest strengths is their depth. There are two to four players at every position waiting to step in and take a teammate's spot in the lineup, and it looks as if the Titans may have to test their depth right away. Joe Scott (Jr., Corona, Calif.), the only Titan to play in every single game in 2007, is suffering from what the doctors are calling a "sports hernia" and may need surgery to repair the damage.
If Scott does need surgery, he will miss four to six weeks following the procedure opening up his spot in the Titan lineup.
"If there was ever a team to be able to afford an injury like Joe's, it would be this one," Serrano said. "If one Titan does go down, there is a Titan just as good right behind him ready to step in and pick up the torch."
Every one of the starting infielders from 2007 suffered a broken bone at some point during the year (Jake Vazquez - wrist, Joel Weeks - ankle, Joe Scott - knuckle and Evan McArthur - hamate bone and ankle). Needless to say, the lineup and defense were inconsistent for a better part of the season. This year the fans are going to get a new look at some familiar faces and will also see some of the finest young talent the country has to offer.
Jared Clark (Jr., Castiac, Calif.) will be making his much-anticipated return after recovering from a knee injury suffered in the fall of 2006. Clark, who has never quite reached his perceived potential, might just open a few eyes this season. He has become a more disciplined and focused hitter and has caught Serrano's eye as one of this year's team leaders as the first baseman in 2008.
"Jared had a tremendous fall, and will be in the middle of our line-up just as we had anticipated. He has worked extremely hard to become a better defensive first baseman, while showing he is going to be one of the better hitters in this area," Serrano praised.
A healthy Scott would be the Titans' starting second baseman in 2008. He finished 2007 by hitting .322 over the final 29 games and shored up the middle defensively. Scott's move from short to second should not be looked at as a demotion though says Serrano, as he likens the situation to that of one the Titans encountered a few years back with Blake Davis and Justin Turner.
"Both were equals at shortstop, but Turner was hands down better on the other side of second base. Joe reminds me a lot of `Red' at second, and can definitely swing back over and play short if we need him to."
However, if Scott is not able to go by Opening Day, Cory Jones (Soph., Camarillo, Calif.) will be ready to step in. Jones spent a good chunk of 2007 at second after Weeks sustained his untimely ankle fracture last March. Serrano has full faith in Jones as the next in line, stating he has improved his discipline at the plate and his range on defense as well. Freshman Gary Brown could see some time there as well.
At shortstop will be freshman Christian Colon (Fr. Corona, Calif., Canyon High School), a player with whom Coach Serrano has been very impressed by. "He is as far along as any freshman I have ever seen at the shortstop position," Serrano gushed. "He has savvy well beyond his years as a player, and has unbelievable hands. I think Titan fans are going to be very impressed with the game he brings day in and day out with his glove."
Serrano compares Colon's defensive skills to Chicago White Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrerra, and says that it is not so much the flash and flare, but the consistency of his glove work that will make the impression. Serrano has also seen Colon's ability with the bat, and feels that he may bring more to the table early in his career than was previously expected.
Backing up the freshman at short will be the aforementioned Scott as well as junior college transfer Shevis Shima (Jr. Wailuku, Hawaii, Saddleback College).
A healthy Joel Weeks (Sr., Cypress, Calif.) will be good for the Titans in 2008. Known for a long-line of outstanding defensive third basemen, The Titans will look to Weeks to continue the tradition at his new position. Weeks isn't a natural third baseman, and doesn't possess the size of a prototypical power hitter, but the Titans aren't looking for that in him.
"He has great instinct and he is going to field his position and throw the ball across the diamond. We think he is going to bring more to the table than a lot of people expect," Serrano said of Weeks. "He isn't the loudest or most vocal guy on the team, but he's a young man that knows the game. He's a pure baseball player."
Weeks led the team in hitting at the time of his injury in `07, and was a spark plug the team lacked for the better part of the year. Behind him Serrano has Ryan Aguayo (R-Fr., Pico Rivera, Calif.) and Shima (who, in addition to short and third, has worked out some at first base).
Serrano said the athleticism of this team could be evident on any given night where he could quite possibly have four shortstops on the infield. "That could make it tough for anyone to get a ball through."
Like the infield, the Titans will be sporting a team of very able-bodied outfielders, all of who could legitimately cover ground in centerfield. The coaching staff will have some decisions to make before the season begins, but Serrano sees the decisions falling into place after they decide who will man centerfield.
There is a dog-fight between freshman Gary Brown (Fr., Diamond Bar, Calif., Diamond Bar HS) and returner Josh Fellhauer (Soph., Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.) for the centerfield spot. One will end in center with the other likely shifting over and play left field.
"There is a real log jam of players in the outfield right now, and it is hard to say how the line-up is going to unfold. We are going to win with pitching and defense first, but the outfield is where our bats are."
Even though he doesn't know who is going to play where, Serrano knows one thing is for certain. "Gary Brown is going to be somewhere in the lineup. If he isn't in center, he will be in left. If he isn't in left, he'll be at second. It is however, very likely that he will open up as our leadoff hitter wherever he is playing."
The Titans are fortunate that Brown is on campus, as he was selected in the 12th round of the 2007 amateur draft out of high school. He is a high-energy, fast, versatile player that Fullerton fans will enjoy watching. And despite not having a college game under his belt, Serrano predicts a bright future for the rookie.
"I will be surprised if he isn't one of the most exciting college baseball players to watch over the next three years. He is going to do some special things."
Serrano sees Fellhauer as one of the players he wants with the ball or bat in his hand when the game is on the line. He attributes some of Fellhauer's ability to play under pressure to his career as a high school quarterback. Serrano knows all too well of Fellhauer's late-game heroics as he threw UC Irvine's potential game-winning runner out at the plate from left field in the bottom of the 13th inning at the College World Series last June.
"Felly is one of last year's main performers. He's a big game guy, and we are very fortunate to have him coming into this season with a year under his belt.
Khris Davis (Soph., Glendale, Ariz.) is another outfielder that has shown some promise to Serrano. "Khris is a very talented outfielder and has shown us just how exciting he can be at the plate. We've realized that he might be better suited in right field. We are working on his arm strength, which is looking like his only Achilles heel."
In the same breath with Davis, Serrano praised other outfield possibilities, returner Chris Jones (Jr., San Clemente, Calif.), and newcomers Erik Komatsu (Jr., Camarillo, Calif., Oxnard College) and Jeff Newman (Jr., Ontario, Calif., Riverside City College).
"Jones was in the heart of last year's order and brings with him invaluable experience. He is also very well-liked by his teammates.
"Komatsu can flat out hit. If he doesn't make it in the outfield, he will be our DH, and hitting in the three or five hole. That's the type of hitter he is.
"Newman is the ultimate fourth outfielder. He could be a guy that will come in to lay down a bunt, steal a base, or spell a guy defensively late in a game. He can play all three spots in the outfield and is a very valuable player to have in the arsenal.
Serrano admitted the catching position was a question mark when he first arrived. But the group quickly showed him he had nothing to be concerned about with their play in the fall. Leading the way was junior Dustin Garneau (Jr., San Pedro, Calif.). "Dustin solidified himself as our number one catcher, and has actually shown that he might be a little more offensive than I ever thought he would be at the plate," Serrano said.
Garneau, a great defensive catcher with a strong throwing arm, will finally get his chance at the everyday spot after apprenticing behind John Curtis the past two seasons. Known to his teammates as "Drago", Garneau has a great rapport with the pitchers and that will help him unify a fairly young and inexperienced pitching staff.
Behind Garneau will be Billy Marcoe (Soph., Bellevue, Wash.), another Titan catcher that has spent time waiting for his chance behind Curtis. Marcoe is also a very athletic catcher with a very accurate throwing arm and will fit well into this Titan offense. Matt Powell (Jr., La Mesa, Calif., Grossmont College) and Jon Wilhite (Sr., Manhattan Beach, Calif.) will also be vying for time behind the plate and Serrano has no qualms about letting any of the four get some innings.
With the new season and a new coaching staff comes a new schedule in 2008, one that may affect pitching staffs across the country the most. Gone are the days of three-to-four games a week, with four-to-five games a week on tap this season.
Serrano's immediate solution, "Early on we are going to start with a three-man rotation and let the fourth game be a staff day, then we will move to a four-man rotation when we start playing five times a week and let that fifth game be our staff day."
Serrano continued, "Like always, we are going to have to put our best three on the weekends, but we are going to have to look past that. We have some tough midweeks this year, most notably teams like UCLA, Arizona State and San Diego."
Like every position on the field, a lot of time is up for grabs, and pitching is no different. Senior Jeff Kaplan, (Sr., Dana Point, Calif.) looks to be the only locked-in starter with the rest of the rotation up for grabs and determining where everyone else will fall in line. "Jeff is going ot lead this staff," Serrano said of the right-handed senior who is slotted for the Friday night role. Kaplan tied Wes Roemer for the team lead in wins last year with 11 while losing just three.
Behind Kaplan are Adam Jorgenson (Sr., Costa Mesa, Calif.), Cory Arbiso (Jr., La Mirada, Calif.) and Michael Morrison (Soph., Cypress, Calif.) working for the two-to-three open starting roles. Jorgenson has been one of the most used pitchers over the last three years out of the bullpen and Arbiso is coming off a season that limited him to a few midweek innings late in the season due to some arm troubles early on. Morrison will look to continue developing into a full-time starter after picking up for a slumping Sean Urena in mid-2007 as a freshman.
Serrano will have his pick from a handful of other pitchers to fill starting roles and to work out of the bullpen. He likes what he has seen over the winter break as far as bullpen work, but other than Kaplan and Jorgenson, none have been extensively battle-tested in real game situations.
Jason Dovel (Fr., Buena Park, Calif., La Mirada HS) and Daniel Renken (Fr., Cypress, Calif., Orange Lutheran HS) have both made impressions on Serrano that may get them some playing time sooner than later. "We're going to get their feet wet early on," Serrano said. "They are two kids that have really come to the surface fast as freshman. Dovel and Renken both have tremendous stuff and were both winners in high school, which leads me to believe that it wont change now that they are at this level."
As of late, Brad Barragar (Sr., Alta Loma, Calif.) has caught Serrano's attention. Hampered with arm injuries over the past two seasons, Barragar is coming into his own and has his fastball back in to the low- to mid-90's with his sharp breaking ball working well right now in the bullpen.
"Brad being back to form has been a real pleasant surprise." Serrano said. "He is still a little ways out, but if we can have him at full strength by the middle of March, I will be a happy coach. He will just add more depth to the staff when he is healthy."
Others like Travis Kelly (Soph., Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.), Paul Canedo (Sr., Diamond Bar, Calif.), Greg Gelber (Soph., Agoura, Calif., Ventura College), Ryan Ackland (Soph., Yorba Linda, Calif.) and even Jared Clark who is back on the mound, will look to fit in where they are needed.
Closing down the games for the Titans in 2008 will be LMU transfer Brian Wilson (Jr., San Diego, Calif, Loyola Marymount). Wilson has separated himself as the leading candidate for the role, and will use a three-pitch arsenal, including a very good change up that he can use as an out pitch.
The Titans' 2008 56-game schedule consists of 30 games at Goodwin Field and 26 on the road and will feature a non-conference schedule that is comprised of seven NCAA Tournament teams. "As Always, our schedule is going to be a challenging one, and we wouldn't want it any other way," Serrano said. "We want our guys being challenged each and every day leading up to our Big West Conference schedule.
Fullerton's 2008 course will be somewhat of a departure from their standard calendar of events starting with a season-opening series with up-and-coming TCU in Fort Worth, Texas. The Titans have had Stanford at the top of their list for the better part of the last decade, but this year they will take on the Horned Frog.
Also new to the docket is a weekend series with Southern Miss and a two-game midweek series with highly-ranked Arizona State. Add to that a midweek series with UCLA, a weekend series with Arizona and a midweek tilt with San Diego, the Titans will have their work cut out for them even when they are not in conference.
In all, Fullerton will have 26 games against 10 teams that competed last year in the NCAA postseason and that includes five games against the Sun Devils and UC Irvine Anteaters who were both in last year's College World Series.
In conference, Serrano feels the competition level rising and will stressed the importance of not just winning series, but sweeping their opponents whenever possible. "I am excited about the challenge we have in conference seeing how the teams have all formed," Serrano said. "A successful conference schedule could bode well for the teams that survive and move on to the next phase in the playoff because those teams will be battle-tested in a very strong baseball conference."
The Titans begin their 2008 campaign on Friday, Feb. 22 at TCU.