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COLLEGE BASEBALL

UCLA holdover is a survivor

June 01, 2007|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

When the old coach left, Will Penniall stayed with the UCLA baseball team.

When the team sunk to depths rarely before seen, Penniall elevated his level of play.

And when the new coach took away his starting job, Penniall took it as a personal challenge.

But through it all, he never once thought about quitting -- patience that paid off.

Penniall, who last year batted .211 as a part-time player, is batting .311 this season and will start in left field when UCLA opens against Pepperdine today at 3 p.m. in an NCAA regional at Blair Field in Long Beach. Illinois Chicago plays Long Beach State at 7 p.m. in the second game at Blair on a day when UC Riverside, UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton also open regional action.

"Baseball is funny," Penniall said. "Things can change real quick. You play it long enough, you'll see it all."

Penniall knows. A switch-hitting fifth-year senior, he was recruited to UCLA by longtime coach Gary Adams, figuring that's whom he'd play for throughout college. Then John Savage took over in 2005.

Penniall started and batted leadoff that year, but with the arrival of Savage's first recruiting class Penniall was on the bench in 2006.

"He didn't become bitter," Savage said. "He was disappointed, but he stuck with it and continued to work hard. That showed me a lot about the kid."

Penniall spent extra hours in the batting cages and was always among the first to arrive at and the last to leave practice. That continued into this season and -- when some injuries occurred -- he worked his way back into the starting lineup.

UCLA (30-26) is 20-15 in games he started.

Penniall is among only four holdovers from the Adams era and is the only current UCLA player Adams coached for more than one season.

"They are different coaches in many ways," Penniall said, "so it was a big transition for everybody who went through it."

Adams expected players to motivate themselves. Savage, who has guided the Bruins to regionals in his first two seasons, is more structured and demanding.

"There's positives and negatives to be said with either style," Penniall said. "Different styles motivate different personalities.

"It was just a new start, that's how I looked at it," he added. "In 2005, I deserved to be on the bench because I had a down year. I never felt like I was swept under the rug because I was an Adams recruit."

Now, Penniall has achieved something like sage status among the Bruins. Of the six seniors on the roster, four were transfers who have been at UCLA only two years.

"He's the guy who has been there and done that," said freshman outfielder Gabe Cohen. "He's been through it all, so anything you need you can go to Will."

Penniall's father, Dave, was UCLA's team captain in 1976, but he isn't the type to animatedly fire up teammates.

"I like to think guys have a certain amount of respect for me," Penniall said, "but I've never really had that rah-rah type of personality."

He remained true to that last weekend when, after UCLA had played its final regular-season game, Savage asked his most senior player to address the team.

Penniall stood and asked if it was OK to have doughnuts at their gathering the next morning.

"It was typical Will," Savage said. " ... I don't know why I would have expected anything else."

peter.yoon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Regional capsules

In other Division I baseball regionals today involving local teams:

At Dell Diamond, Round Rock, Texas

No. 3 Wake Forest (33-27) vs. No. 2 UC Irvine (40-15-1), 11 a.m. PDT

No. 4 Brown (27-19) vs. No. 1 Texas (44-15), 5 p.m.

* UC Irvine was runner-up to UC Riverside in the Big West Conference and is ranked No. 9 in the nation by Baseball America. Yet the Anteaters were seeded second in this region and face the possibility of a matchup against No. 5 Texas, the Big 12 regular-season champion, for the regional championship. Wake Forest was fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Brown, which is playing in its first NCAA baseball tournament, was the Ivy League champion.

At Winkles Field, Tempe, Ariz.

No. 3 Nebraska (30-25) vs. No. 2 UC Riverside (37-19), 2 p.m.

No. 4 Monmouth (36-22-1) vs. No. 3 Arizona State (43-13), 7 p.m.

* UC Riverside got one of the toughest draws in recent memory for a Big West champion, facing a perennially strong Nebraska program and then a possible showdown with Pacific 10 Conference champion Arizona State, which is ranked No. 6 in the nation by Baseball America. Monmouth won the Northeastern Conference tournament after finishing third in the regular season.

At Tony Gwynn Stadium, San Diego

No. 3 Minnesota (40-16) vs. No. 2 Cal State Fullerton (33-23), 4 p.m.

No. 4 Fresno State (36-27) vs. No. 1 San Diego (43-16), 8 p.m.

* Cal State Fullerton received a generous seeding after finishing fifth in the Big West, but the Titans advanced to the College World Series last year and were 2-2. They open against the Golden Gophers, who finished second in the Big Ten regular season and also the conference tournament. San Diego is seeded eighth nationally and is ranked No. 4 by Baseball America. Fresno State is the Western Athletic Conference champion.

-- PETER YOON

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