With perennial power Cal State Northridge in the picture last season, the UC Riverside baseball team had to settle for a share of the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. title and second place in the NCAA Division II West Regional tournament.
But with the departure of Northridge to Division I, the Highlanders will not have to share the spotlight this season.
Riverside enters the season as one of the top-ranked teams in Division II. The Highlanders are ranked No. 3 by Baseball America and No. 5 by Collegiate Baseball.
Other early favorites are Azusa Pacific in the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics District 3 and Claremont-Mudd and La Verne in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, although the top NCAA Division III team on the West Coast might be independent Cal State San Bernardino.
Here is a look at the teams by conference:
Perhaps the key ingredient in Riverside's success last season, when it went 39-18, was its pitching, and most of the staff is intact. The leaders include starters Bill Jordan and Chris Green, short reliever Paul Gambs and middle reliever Eric Welker. The Highlanders also have several top hitters back from a squad that batted .316. They include shortstop Mark Saugstad, third baseman Ruben Ayala and first baseman Chad Townsend.
After winning the Division II title in 1989, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo slipped to 23-29 and missed the playoffs last year. But the Mustangs expect to rebound with six starters returning, headed by outfielders Doug O'Neill, Phil James and Drew Herron. Other offensive leaders include third baseman Matt Drake, shortstop Gerald Rucker and first baseman Jason Pokrzywinski. The team's pitching depth, however, is suspect.
Chapman, which posted its best record in five seasons, 32-21, last year, still has one of the top pitchers in the CCAA in Pete Coleman and an outstanding hitter in infielder Mike Giuseffi. Other returning offensive leaders include catcher Mike Kelly, first baseman Doug Yates and infielder Mark Landeros.
On the surface, the 22-24-2 record of Cal State Dominguez Hills last year was unimpressive, but it was the Toros' best mark since they reached the Division II World Series in 1987. They should continue to improve with the return of pitchers Vince Aguilar and Armando Plascencia. The offense will focus on first baseman Darrell Conner and Fresno State transfer Cary Windes at third base.
In his 30 years as coach of Cal Poly Pomona, John Scolinos hasn't had many as frustrating as last year, when injuries and inexperience held the Broncos to an uncharacteristic 18-36 record. Improvement this season might depend on the successful return from injuries of pitchers Wayne Koklys and Dan Mead. Pomona will count on offensive support from catcher Shannon Wright and shortstop Jason Keeline.
In a balanced conference, Cal State Los Angeles has finished near the bottom in recent seasons, and it may meet the same fate again. The Golden Eagles, 19-36 last season, will build their offense around outfielder Doug Williams, third baseman Eddie Velazquez and catcher Marty Tourville. The top returning pitcher is Abdom Pinon.
NAIA DISTRICT 3
Since the early 1980s, Azusa Pacific has been as successful as any team in the district, including a second-place finish and a 34-12 record last season. With the loss of All-American first baseman Carlos Salazar to the pros, the Cougars will not have as much power, but still can field a solid lineup paced by infielders Todd Patino and Eric Jeffres and pitcher Craig Hale.
Cal Lutheran won its first district title and had its best record at 35-16. The Kingsmen hope to maintain their momentum with the return of offensive leaders such as infielder Dave Leonhardt, outfielder Blake Babki and designated hitter Pete Washington. The team also should have solid pitching, paced by returning starter Mike Clark.
In a balanced district race, Cal Baptist also figures among the contenders. The Lancers, who finished 35-18 last season, expect to have one of the top offensive teams in the district with the return of first baseman Scott Maling. Another top hitter is shortstop Rudy Gomez, and the team has two reliable pitchers in Joe Szczepanski and Alex Friedrichs.
Despite losing five players to the major league draft, it will not be a surprise if Southern California College matches its 27-22-1 record of a year ago. The Vanguards should get solid pitching from senior starters Brett Johnson and Mike Castle. The offense also appears potent behind returning starters Doug Ristrom at shortstop and Sean Maharg in the outfield.
The Master's made progress last season by reaching the district playoffs for the first time, finishing with one of its best marks at 26-22. The Mustangs have a new coach, Chris Harrison, but with all-district infielders Andy Martin and Craig Johnson and outfielder Sheldon Sparks returning, another postseason berth is a distinct possibility.