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COLLEGE BASEBALL GARY KLEIN

Irvine Sticking to Its Home Turf in Return

January 24, 2002|GARY KLEIN

John Savage spent the last 18 months helping to design everything from UC Irvine's baseball facility to the Anteaters' uniforms.

On Friday night the coach who was selected to resurrect Irvine's program finally puts his team on the field for the school's first game since dropping the sport after the 1992 season because of budget cuts.

The Anteaters play San Diego in a nonconference matchup that opens the college season in the Southland and is expected to draw a sellout crowd.

"We're inexperienced and young, but I think we'll be competitive," said Savage, a former assistant at USC and Nevada who is regarded as one of the top recruiters in the nation. "Hopefully, we'll grow up in a hurry."

There are 21 freshmen, 12 juniors and one sophomore listed on Irvine's roster. The Anteaters will compete in the Big West Conference. Brett Smith, a pitcher and designated hitter from La Habra Sonora High, is one of Irvine's top freshmen. Among the juniors are catcher Chris Miller, a transfer from Cuesta College, and left-hander Sean Tracey (Citrus College) and right-hander Paul French (Sacramento City College).

To ease the maturation process for his team, Savage scheduled 14 consecutive home games to start the season.

"I don't think that anyone in Southern California, or in the nation for that matter, believes that Irvine is going to be anything less than very, very competitive--and maybe more--in its first season," USC Coach Mike Gillespie said.

Here is a look at the other Division I teams in the Southland:

USC

2001 record: 45-19, 18-6 in the Pacific 10.

The Trojans, ranked fourth by Baseball America, open Feb. 8 at Long Beach State and will play their first 23 games on the road or at neutral sites as renovations at Dedeaux Field are completed. The Trojans will play a three-game series against Baylor at Dodger Stadium on Feb. 15-17.

Pitcher Mark Prior is now the property of the Chicago Cubs after producing one of the most dominant seasons in college baseball history. The Trojans also lost Rik Currier, but they still have plenty of pitching and enough offense to challenge for their third consecutive trip to the College World Series. Junior right-hander Anthony Reyes (5-4, 3.72 earned-run average) is projected as a possible first-round draft choice. After another outstanding summer in the Cape Cod League, junior right-hander Chad Clark (4-2, 6.39) is expected to join the rotation. Sophomore left-hander Fraser Dizard (3-3, 5.44) is another top prospect.

Senior outfielder Brian Barre (.345, 13 home runs), junior catcher Alberto Concepcion (.321), junior second baseman Anthony Lunetta (.305) and sophomore third baseman/shortstop Michael Moon (.313) give the Trojans an experienced nucleus. Third baseman Joey Metropoulos and left-handed pitchers J.P. Howell and Matt Chico are the top newcomers.

UCLA

2001 record: 30-27, 9-15 in Pac-10.

The Bruins expect to improve on last season's finish, but it will be a challenge with a schedule that includes five of last season's eight College World Series participants, including road series at Tulane and Miami.

Junior left-hander Mike Kunes (3-2, 3.55) and junior right-hander Kevin Jerkens (3-2, 5.00) are probably the most experienced members of the pitching staff.

Junior outfielder Ben Francisco (.309) and sophomore utility man Brandon Averill (.333) are top performers on offense.

First baseman Wes Whisler and infielder Chris Jensen are freshmen who could start. Outfielder Chad Concolino, a transfer from Saddleback College, is another top newcomer.

CAL STATE FULLERTON

2001 record: 48-18, 14-4 in Big West.

The Titans, ranked 15th, are aiming for their second consecutive trip to the College World Series despite the loss of right-hander Kirk Saarloos, left-hander Jon Smith and their entire starting infield.

Sophomore Darric Merrell (8-4, 2.95) emerged as one of the nation's top pitchers at last year's World Series, and sophomore Chad Cordero (3-4, 1.83, 14 saves) is one of the top returning closers.

Chris Stringfellow (.345) returns in the outfield and Jason Corapci and Mike Martinez are regarded as outstanding defensive players at second base and third base, respectively. David Munoz will start at shortstop after transferring from Biola, where he batted .372 with 12 homers.

Fullerton opens Feb. 1 at top-ranked Stanford.

LONG BEACH STATE

2001 record: 35-23, 11-7 in Big West.

Mike Weathers takes over as coach of the 49ers, succeeding Dave Snow, who retired after building Long Beach State into a national power.

Weathers was head coach at Chapman College from 1984-91 before joining the Long Beach staff as an assistant.

Junior Jeremy Reed is one of the top players in the Big West Conference. Reed played first base last season and batted .348 with 40 runs batted in and 23 stolen bases.

He batted a team-best .366 for Team USA last summer and will move to center field this season for the 49ers.

Right-hander Josh Alliston (2-3, 3.44) has saved 10 games in each of the last two seasons and will move into the rotation this season.

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