Preseason baseball practice began this week at Cal State Fullerton, and a few things appeared obvious:
* The pitching staff looks solid and deep.
* There will be close competition the next 3 1/2 weeks at several positions before Coach George Horton settles on a lineup for the season opener Jan. 30 against California.
* Horton feels good about the team's potential.
"We definitely feel better about our pitching than we did last year at this point," Horton said. "And we feel better about the team chemistry at this stage. We think this can be an exciting team."
Erasmo Ramirez and Benny Flores, two proven pitchers who transferred from Cal State Northridge, have brought instant stability. Horton is planning to use both as starters, along with impressive freshman Jon Smith.
"They'll be tough for anyone to beat out," Horton said.
Senior Scott Hild is likely to be the fourth starter, or a top reliever.
"He didn't start throwing again until November after some shoulder problems in the summer," Horton said. "But he feels good now, and if he can get back to the form he showed as a sophomore, he will help us a lot."
Now, it's mostly a matter of Horton and pitching coach Dave Serrano deciding on roles for the other pitchers. Sophomore Michael Garner will be in the picture as a starter or regular reliever. Horton says freshman Kirk Saarloos has shown potential as a closer. Three others--Adam Johnson, Marco Hanlon and Jason Stewart--are being counted on for relief help.
The outfield has several experienced players including returning regulars Steve Chatham, Aaron Rowand and Reed Johnson. Pete Fukuhara also will contend for one of the three starting spots.
The infield is the big question. Only first baseman Kevin Duck, who played last season at Santa Ana College, appears set. "We've got at least two guys in fairly close competition at the other infield spots," Horton said.
Sophomore Ryan Owens, who started 35 games last season, is being used at shortstop and second base. Chad Olszanski, who is strong defensively, is competing with Owens at shortstop, and senior Gaby Halcovich and freshman David Bacani also are at second base. The competition also is close at third base with sophomore Danny Phillips, freshman Jeremy Weinberg and junior Ryan Moore, a transfer from Mt. San Antonio College, all in contention.
Sophomore Craig Patterson appears set as the regular catcher.
"He's going to be a superior defensive catcher, but it's just a matter of how quickly that will happen," Horton said.
The women's track team will get a boost with the addition of distance runner Carrie Garritson. Coach John Elders says she has transferred from Alabama and will begin classes at the start of the second semester. Garritson was an outstanding high school runner at Buena Park.
"She will have two seasons of eligibility remaining in track and one in cross-country," Elders said. "She should help strengthen our distance group a great deal."
Elders says Garritson's best college times are comparable to those of the Titans' top female distance runner, senior Sarah MacDougall.
The gymnastics team opens its season at home Saturday night against the University of Denver, and the meet will be the Titan debut for new recruit Tammy De la Cruz, a member of the Philippine national team.
"She'll compete in some events in the first meet, but not all of them," Coach Lynn Rogers said. "She's still adjusting to the 16-hour time difference, and still getting used to our equipment, which is a little different.
"We're taking a conservative approach. We don't want to rush her."
De la Cruz was eighth in the all-around at the Southeast Asia Games. She finished third on uneven bars and fourth on the beam.
Three of Fullerton's top gymnasts will miss the meet because of injuries. Katy Maty, last season's Big West all-around champion, is being held out because of back problems. Cortney Bogart is still recovering from arthroscopic surgery on her right shoulder and Alexis Lott is sidelined by a recurring knee problem.
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Key games this week for Cal State Fullerton:
* Men's basketball at New Mexico State Thursday and at North Texas Saturday. The Titans (5-5) are 0-5 on the road.
* Women's basketball against New Mexico State, at 7 p.m. Friday, and against North Texas at 2 p.m. Sunday, at Titan Gym. The Titans are 3-8.
* Wrestling against Boise State, at 7 tonight at Titan Gym.
* Women's gymnastics against Denver at 7 p.m. Saturday, at Titan Gym.