Titans hope to continue unlikely legacy in super regional round
FULLERTON, Calif. -- Sometimes an obvious choice is easy to overlook.
Then it hits home.
The setting may not look like it at first glance, but this an epicenter for one of college baseball's strongest regions.
Make no mistake; Fullerton is undeniably one of the nation's pre-eminent baseball schools. Think Kansas basketball. Or Tennessee football.
The Jayhawks and Vols have as many combined titles in their respective sports as Fullerton does in baseball.
Starting with the Titans' first title in 1979, only LSU (five) has more baseball national championships in the same time frame. And only USC (12), Texas (six), Arizona State (five) and LSU have more overall titles than Fullerton.
Heading around to the other side of the diamond that's framed on one side by the Fullerton Arboretum, the Titans' baseball heritage is celebrated on the Nicholas Wall of Champions, which sits behind the home plate seats. There is a plaque which recognizes each of the four championship teams -- complete with an open space that's "Reserved for Future NCAA Champions."
There's also a plaque for each of the four people who have had the biggest impact on the program, starting with legendary former coach Augie Garrido (875 wins, three titles) and including Fullerton's three Golden Spikes Awards winners: Tim Wallach (1979), Phil Nevin (1992) and Mark Kotsay (1995).
On the first Monday in June, almost all was quiet in and around the expertly manicured home of Titans baseball.
That's because Fullerton (36-23) wrapped up the San Diego Regional with a 13-2 win over Fresno State very late Sunday night. After the bus ride home Monday morning, Titans coach George Horton gave the players and coaches the day off.
On-field preparation for the super regional against UCLA (33-26) wouldn't begin until Tuesday. But several maintenance workers were busy touching up the navy and orange paint and otherwise readying the 3,500-seat facility that will host this weekend's best-of-three series (Game 1, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN) to see which team advances to Omaha.
After the Titans stumbled to a 6-11 finish down the stretch, there was little reason to believe they would advance past the regional round. But second-seeded Fullerton took advantage of San Diego's early exit -- the top-seeded Toreros were swept at home -- to beat the regional's lower seeds. The Titans quickly dispatched Minnesota in the opener and then swept Fresno State on Saturday and Sunday to move on.
At the same time up the coast in Long Beach, the host Dirtbags couldn't get past No. 2 UCLA and the Bruins swept their way into the second weekend. But when there was no bid from Westwood to host a super regional, the Titans were more than willing to oblige.
"It's pretty amazing how all of this unfolded," Horton said. "When we got through our regional and Long Beach didn't, we were going to have the right to host. In years' past, you totally earned the right to host the regional or super regional, and in this case I'm not sure how much we earned it, but we'll take it.
"It's kind of surreal because by our standards we've had such a subpar year. But here we are hosting a super regional. Who would've thunk it about a month ago?"
The Titans are driven by center fielder Clark Hardman, who leads the team in average (.389), hits (98) and on-base percentage (.428). The junior went 8-for-14 with a homer and three RBIs in San Diego and was named the regional's MVP.
"We look to this as a new start to our season and we take that as a challenge even though we finished the regular season on a low note," Hardman said. "You're starting over and you've got a fresh start to see what happens."
Not far behind are freshman outfielder Josh Fellhauer (.326, .407 OBP) and junior right-fielder Nick Mahin (.288, 9 HR, 45 RBI).
But the heart and soul and the identity of the Titans is attached to starting pitcher Wes Roemer. Most pitchers would be happy with the junior's 2007 numbers: 10-6, 3.33 ERA, 6 complete games and 136 strikeouts.
Those are seemingly pedestrian numbers compared to Roemer's statistically eye-popping second year (13-2, 2.38, 3 CG, 145 K).
"It's been a rough season," Roemer said. "I try not to look at statistics and I feel like I'm throwing just as good as I was last year. And I feel like I get stronger as the year goes on.
"I just want to go out and win a national championship because that's why I came here. So I truly don't think about what happened during the season."
Fullerton played UCLA in the season's first month. The Titans lost the opener at home but came back to take a pair at Jackie Robinson Stadium to win the weekend series. But that was more than three months ago, and neither team looks nor plays like it did back in February.
"On paper it looks like it's going to be a pitching and defense-type series," Horton said. "But this time of year the reason the teams are still playing is because they have good pitching and defense. It's unrealistic to think that you're going to go in against a [Tyson] Brummett or a [Gavin] Brooks or a [Tim] Murphy and put up crooked numbers every single inning.
"You're going to have to find a crack in their armor and maybe catch a couple of breaks and get timely hitting and try to break them down. It just gets tougher and tougher every step of the way."
Fullerton has hosted a super regional in five of the last six seasons, and it has advanced to the College World Series every time except 2005, when Arizona State took two of three at Goodwin.
So don't expect the Titans to be awed by the big stage.
"I think the experience factor is huge," Hardman said. "We have a lot of guys who have been there before. There's a sense of awe just [being] there and you can get a little tight. But we have guys who have been through it and it makes us comfortable, it makes us more relaxed and it keeps us in character."
A win against UCLA would advance the Titans to their 15th College World Series appearance. From there, anything can happen.
"I think a lot of people got off the Cal State Fullerton bandwagon when we hit our slide," Horton said. "We probably earned the right to have questions about our ability to move on because of our performance through the year.
"The weird thing about baseball and the reason it's double-elimination is that hot teams move on. The maturity factor is realizing that if you play good baseball and you stay hot for an extended period of time, you can find yourself in Omaha with a chance to win the national championship."
And that open spot on the Wall of Champions is ready and waiting to spotlight the next Fullerton title.
The Titans may not be a favorite at first glance, but with five of the eight national seeds eliminated, the baseball gods already have jettisoned most of the obvious choices.
David Albright is the senior coordinator for college sports at ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.