USD’s baseball program had a rare losing season in 2016. So how are they approaching their bounce-back year?
By throwing a young but talented group right to the wolves. The Toreros have put together a schedule that is not for the faint of heart.
“That’s why people come here!” said head coach Rich Hill, who helped engineer the schedule of doom. “The schedule is a high-risk, high-reward deal but it’s fun.”
They open with a 3-game set at Fowler Park against Vanderbilt, the 2014 national champion and 2015 runner-up. Then they get Notre Dame in the Tony Gwynn Memorial Classic with a date against either Oregon or UC Irvine to follow.
Then how about USC, UCLA and Michigan in the Dodgertown Classic in Los Angeles before hitting the road to play Number 3 LSU in Baton Rouge and a four-game set against nationally-ranked Tulane in New Orleans.
After the West Coast Conference schedule starts they’re mixing in games against Number 14 Cal-State Fullerton, 28th-ranked Long Beach State (NCAA baseball polls go to 35) … when it’s all said and done they have at least 25 games against teams receiving votes.
“Everything we do is mindful of the RPI (Rating Percentage Index, a measure of schedule strength) and getting a bid to the NCAA Tournament,” said Hill. “Omaha is the dream. It’s the benchmark, the pinnacle of college baseball and we schedule with that in mind. We have to. As a non-BCS school you’ve gotta play the best and hope for the best.”
But what about the players? The Toreros have 19 underclassmen, an awful lot to compete with the best of the best. But one of their few seniors agrees with Hill’s assertion that this could be really run.
“You can look at anything as a threat or an opportunity,” said LHP Troy Conyers, an El Capitan High School alum. “We have the ability to do something great. You can’t go in scared. You can either feel pressure or apply pressure. I think that we’re going to be kind of a dark horse this year. I think we’re a lot more talented than people may think.”
They’re going to need to be. However … playing a schedule as daunting as this can have long-term positive impacts.
“Oh, 100%,” said Sammy Solis, a former Torero who is now a staple of the Washington Nationals bullpen. “You get to the big league level; obviously these guys are the best in the world. But in college you want to play the best schools because you’re preparing not only physically but mentally as well. You’ve got to be ready to play every against these guys that, if you make one mistake, they hit it out of the park. I think it’s very important to learn that early on and you get that here because Coach Hill, he loves playing tough teams.”
That is apparent in the 2017 schedule. If the young Toreros can learn from their early-season challenges they just might be a factor in the post-season. It all gets underway on Friday, February 17 with the start of the Vanderbilt series.