With its stunning sweep of No. 7 Rice over the weekend, the Spartans (13-8-1) have won nine of their past 10 games and are receiving votes in a national poll for the first time in three years.
``We feel the foundation of our program is back -- which is integrity, character and work ethic. The house can begin to get rebuilt now,'' said Piraro, 53. ``If your foundation is not a very good one, you just have a house of cards. If you have a house of cards like we did last year, it will blow over.''
For Piraro and his program, the trouble started in the winter of 2002 when he was diagnosed with bone-marrow cancer. Forced to relinquish the team to his assistants, the Spartans went 25-32, their first losing season since 1995. Last season Piraro returned, but only in a limited capacity, and the Spartans went 23-31-1.
As bad it looked from the outside, things were worse on the inside.
``There were guys who weren't really buying into what Coach was trying to teach us, and he wasn't going to change their views,'' senior shortstop Anthony Contreras said. ``You could just see people were going in separate directions.''
You can see it today in the composition of the Spartans' roster.
Thirteen underclassmen have departed since fall 2003, including six who transferred to Division I schools or prominent junior college programs. Among them was Carney Lansford's son, Josh, who transferred to Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo after batting .311 and leading the team in RBIs as a freshman.
One of the few public hints that the program was splintering came when Carney Lansford, the former A's third baseman, angrily confronted Piraro on the field after a game in March. Neither Lansford nor Piraro would comment on the incident.
Piraro, who was deemed cancer-free this winter, calls the turnover (which included an assistant coach) another unfortunate fallout of his illness. Most of the players weren't recruited by Piraro and had never met him, let alone played for him, before last spring.
``It was nobody's fault; I don't blame my assistant coaches and I certainly don't blame the kids,'' Piraro said. ``Last year was difficult, but if I had been able to be with those kids from Day One it would have been different because they would have understood the parameters; they would have understood how the program works.''
The departures include several of players who could have been valuable contributors this season. But holdover players said changes had to be made to restore order.
``He's got guys he wants here and he's got the coaching staff he wants here and that has returned things to normal because last year he didn't have that,'' senior pitcher/designated hitter Brad Kilby said.
``From Day One it's been a good, positive environment because everyone who is here wants to be here,'' Kilby added. ``Things are being run a lot more like they were when I was a freshman.''
There are 17 newcomers and just four returning seniors, but it has proved to be a resilient group.
The Spartans are succeeding despite their top hitter (third baseman Ricky Sauceda) and No. 1 pitcher (right-hander Corey Cabral) being out for the season because of shoulder injuries. Left fielder and No. 2 hitter Sam Hall broke a finger March 13 and will be out until May.
``I am really proud of our team, but we're very much still a work in progress,'' Piraro said.
``Coach is basically laying the foundation down again,'' said junior pitcher Branden Dewing. ``He's the man in charge and it's like follow the leader; he's leading the charge.''
Contact Laurence Miedema at firstname.lastname@example.org.