Commentary

Oregon State's success begets its rival's revival

Originally Published: October 29, 2007
By Will Kimmey | Special to ESPN.com

On the same day Oregon State's football team defeated then-No. 2 California, nearly 1,800 people watched OSU's baseball team scrimmage in Bend, Ore.

[+] EnlargePat Casey
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesPat Casey has built Oregon State into a perennial title contender.

That a record 1,757 fans attended a fall scrimmage some 130 miles from the Corvallis campus shows just how far Pat Casey has taken the Beavers baseball program. Well, either that kind of attendance or the Beavers' ownership of the last two College World Series titles.

And those are just some of the signs that Oregon State has emerged as a national power entering Casey's 14th season. The others include the Beavers selling out their 2008 season tickets in an hour, garnering a top-five recruiting class and securing $5.5 million of the $6.5 million needed to renovate Goss Stadium, which would nearly double the permanent seating capacity to about 4,000 while adding a skybox, memorabilia room, academic support center and new players' lounge (hopefully in time for the 2009 season).

But perhaps the biggest indicator of Oregon State's rise from a poor-weather school at the bottom of the Pacific-10 Conference to national prominence came this summer, when its "Civil War" rival Oregon announced it was reviving a baseball program that had lain fallow for 26 years.

"If we created that thought process, then it's good for us and a credit to the Northwest," said Casey, who otherwise has refused to discuss Oregon's program -- or its reported job offer to him this summer -- publicly.

"Our program is a reflection of all the people up here hauling the diamond dry out to the fields on those rainy, wet nights. All the high school and junior college coaches are part of that. We're proud that we carry the flag for the Pacific Northwest and for [the state of] Oregon. You want to keep people motivated in the bad weather and the cold weather and when people tell you that you can't do it up here."

Backed by Nike founder Phil Knight's $100 million athletics donation, Oregon wants in on Oregon State's baseball success. The program's first quack resonated across the country as it lured George Horton, one of the nation's five best active coaches, away from national power Cal State Fullerton after 11 seasons.

"What Pat's accomplished has been tremendous," said Horton, who admitted he might have gone too far in saying Oregon would dominate the Northwest in his introductory press conference. "From my standpoint, he's proven you can do it [in the state of Oregon]. I'm not going to come in and say step aside, but I hope we get to his level in short order."

Horton won the national championship in 2004 and led Fullerton to the CWS six times in the nine seasons since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams. In the past, Horton rejected overtures from LSU, Washington State, UCLA, Oklahoma and Texas A&M. Horton admits the $400,000 compensation package (putting him among the game's highest-paid coaches) and strong financial support and facilities at Oregon played a role in his decision. But he also was intrigued by the opportunity to follow his coaching mentor, Wally Kincaid, in starting a program from scratch and helping with design details on a $10 million to $15 million stadium and the team's uniforms (he's more of a traditionalist, so don't expect the flash to match the football team's).

[+] EnlargeGeorge Horton
AP Photo/Kevin ClarkGeorge Horton is confident he can quickly put together a competitive team.

Horton's move makes a state better known for craft beers, outdoor adventure and rain the new epicenter of college baseball, given the commitment both programs have shown -- and the fact that Casey and Horton have combined to win three of the past four national titles. Who could have predicted that in 2003, when Oregon State finished 25-28?

While Oregon won't start play until the 2009 season, Oregon State will take in the field this season favored to reach Omaha for a fourth straight season. The biggest Beavers constant during this three-year run has been pitching, and they'll be well-stocked again with a rotation fronted by sophomore Jorge Reyes, the reigning CWS Most Outstanding Player, and fellow right-hander Mike Stutes, who returns for his senior year after the Cardinals made him a ninth-round draft pick. Highly touted freshman arms Greg Peavey and Tanner Robles add more depth on the mound and could make an immediate impact.

"The expectations are totally different when you've won two national championships -- and they should be," Casey said of the Oregon State fans. "They expect a great year. It might be a lack of reality, but that's their right to do that. We're just trying to stay in the real world."

This might be the first year in Casey's tenure that Oregon State will deal with the pressure of wearing that target every game without the presence of leaders Darwin Barney and Mitch Canham. Though the Beavers have won the last two titles, 2006 was about proving its 2005 CWS trip wasn't a fluke and 2007 began without six position players and the three star pitchers from '06.

Oregon State slumped late in 2007, needing a series victory against UCLA on the final weekend of the regular season just to sneak into the tournament as the Pac-10's sixth place team. But the Beavers went bonkers in the postseason, winning 12 of their 13 of their games and trailing for only one inning in the CWS as they became the first team to repeat as national champions since LSU in 1996-97 as part of a five-titles in 10 years run. Oregon State even accomplished something those gorilla ball LSU clubs couldn't: Its 2007 club became the first team to win four CWS games by six runs or more.

[+] EnlargeGeorge Horton and Pat Casey
AP Photo/Nati HarnikGeorge Horton and Pat Casey have faced each other on college baseball's biggest stage before.

"We understand that people want to play us and want to beat us," Casey said. "We've got the target on our back. I enjoy that our kids are getting that recognition."

As Oregon State lures recruits with tales of conference titles, 50-wins seasons and national championships, Oregon actually is doing the same. The Ducks are just selling Horton's success and system from Fullerton, along with the chance to start a new program, get immediate playing time and use facilities that Horton said made his chin hit his chest.

Many of the elite prospects in the class of 2008 already had committed to other schools when Oregon hired Horton in late July, so 2009 will mark an important class for the Ducks. Oregon's recruiting will focus on the Northwest, though possibly more on the Southern California area and junior college ranks familiar to Horton and assistants Jason Gill and Andrew Checketts in the early going.

"I don't think they're too worried about us," Gill said of Oregon State. "They're getting the pick of the litter right now."

But Horton, who admits he's still trying to be careful to say Ducks and not Titans in speeches and recruiting visits, hopes to be competitive on the field and in the recruiting battles as early as possible. He thinks his first Oregon team can make the NCAA Tournament.

"This might sound crazy, but we're going to try to do that in the first year," Horton said. "We've got a little bit of a mulligan working if we're not good that year, but my hope is that we'll surprise some people.

"I don't expect to dominate the Pac-10, and I might have been a little excited and too full of myself when I said we'd dominate the Northwest at my press conference and [ticked] off Pat Casey a little bit, but I expect to be competitive and hope to make the tournament right away. And I don't mind if you write it."

Let the Civil War on the diamond begin.

Will Kimmey has covered collegiate baseball for five years. He can be reached at wkimmey@gmail.com.

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