The USC Trojans are returning the NCAA baseball tournament for the first time since 2005. After such a long drought, USC didn't have to wait long during the NCAA Tournament selection show to hear their name called. The Trojans were in the second regional announced, earning a No. 2 seed in the Lake Elsinore Regional hosted by UC Santa Barbara. They will face Virginia at 3 p.m. PDT Friday afternoon in the opening matchup.
"I think it’s huge for the program," USC head coach Dan Hubbs said. "It’ll be a building block for the future. The big thing for us is, we're not in it just to get into the regionals right now. We're in it to win it. We have a team we feel like can make a deep run at this thing if we play well."
Following a 37-19 season, including an 18-12 mark in the Pac-12, USC will stay in Southern California, heading east to the Inland Empire. Because the NCAA requires host stadiums to have lights, UC Santa Barbara could not host on their own campus and came up with the creative solution of The Diamond at Lake Elsinore, home of the minor league Lake Elsinore Storm, and the Gauchos were rewarded for a strong season that included two one-run wins over USC.
"It’s great for our fans to be able to come out to see us play in Lake Elsinore," Hubbs said. "We’ve had good fan support this year. I think we’ll get a good turnout being in Southern California and Lake Elsinore being in a huge USC area. We hope that we get a ton of fan support and that it might even feel like a home game at times."
Besides USC, the four-team regional tournament will feature Santa Barbara (40-15-1), who entered the final weekend ranked No. 15, as the No. 1 seed, defending national champion runner up and preseason top five Virginia (34-22) as a dangerous No. 3 seed and the Mountain West champion San Diego State Aztecs (40-21) as the No. 4 seed.
UC Santa Barbara features on of the top pitching prospects in the country in Dillon Tate, who could be the top pick in the draft next month. But the Gauchos struggled down the stretch, losing two of their last three series, including on the final weekend to a woeful UC Riverside club. Tate did not pitch against UC Riverside to try to rest him after he has been sluggish in his last two starts. If both top seeds win, USC would likely face 6-foot-6 lefty Justin Jacome in the winner's bracket game on Saturday.
But first USC would have to get through Virginia to be in the winner's bracket. The Cavaliers entered the season with high expectations of returning to Omaha and battling for the national title once again. However, they have been beset by injuries and their offense has been woeful at times. After starting the season 10-0, Virginia lost eight of 12 and has been hot and cold since. It had won six in a row before dropping three games at the ACC Tournament.
The Cavaliers could be getting a key arm back this weekend. Ace Nathan Kirby, who was projected as a top round draft pick before some command issues and then being set back by a strained lat muscle that has kept him out since April 17, is expected to be available this weekend. Head coach Brian O'Connor did say today in a news conference that Kirby would not start the first two games. Whether he would be used out of the bullpen is unknown.
If there is an upset in one of the two games on Friday, USC will face off with San Diego State. After starting the season 22-6, the Aztecs struggled in the second half of the season, going just 13-14. But they got hot when it mattered most -- in the conference tournament.
San Diego State is a battle-tested team that won its third straight Mountain West championship over the weekend...and came out of the loser's bracket for the third straight year. The Aztecs walloped 13 home runs in the tournament led by catcher Seby Zavala, who was named tournament MVP after hitting five homers, driving in 11 runs and scoring another eight.
After Mike Gillespie was unceremoniously asked to retire, USC has struggled to find consistent success and haven't seen postseason play since his departure as a result. Following the hiring and firing of Chad Kreuter and the dismissal of Frank Cruz for knowingly violating NCAA practice hour rules, Hubbs was named the interim coach and has turned the program around, earning the official head coach title before last season.
The Trojans went 29-24 last year and were the first team left out of the NCAA Tournament despite finishing with a series win over No. 1 Oregon State. That only fueled this year's squad to finally break the streak of missing the postseason.
"It’s an unreal feeling knowing that everything we’ve done the last four years has finally paid off," senior catcher Garrett Stubbs said. "I haven’t been around the baseball program the last nine years watching us not get in, but the last four years have been long enough."
USC has not played either San Diego State or Virginia this season. While the Trojans did lose twice to UC Santa Barbara, Stubbs was quick to point out that the Trojans haven't lost to any team three times this year, so they feel they are due against the Gauchos.
"If we play our game and we play well, there’s not a team in the nation that will be able to beat us," Stubbs said.
The double-elimination Lake Elsinore Regional will run from Friday to Sunday with two games each day and, if necessary, there will be a second championship game played Monday. For the super regionals, the Lake Elsinore Regional is paired with the Los Angeles Regional where the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, UCLA, is hosting Ole Miss, Maryland and Cal State Bakersfield. If the Trojans and Bruins were to both win their regionals, it would set up a three-game series with a spot in the College World Series on the line.
Stubbs said that possibility alone gave him chills. Knowing they were going to be in the tournament and expecting to be placed in either Lake Elsinore or Fullerton after the regional hosts were announced last night, the Trojans were more excited about that possibility than learning they were in the tournament.
"The biggest reaction was knowing that if we win our regional, we’re more than likely going to face UCLA," Stubbs said. "Going to UCLA to play them to go to the College World Series, if that were to happen, that would be a surreal series. I think fans of college baseball want that to happen more than anything."
While the seniors are excited to leave the legacy of getting the Trojans back to the postseason, they want to do more than just that.
"When we came in as a freshman class, we said we were going to change the program," Stubbs said. "This is what we came in freshman year to do. Part of the reason why some of us came back senior year was to do exactly what we’ve done right now. It’s not going to stop. Now that we’re in it, it’s time to get to a super regional and a College World Series."