Commentary

Great coaches, 'leftover' players key to Fullerton's, UC Irvine's runs

Updated: June 6, 2008, 8:21 PM ET
By Robyn Norwood | Special to ESPN.com

As coach Dave Serrano's Cal State Fullerton team held off UCLA on Monday to advance to an NCAA super regional against Stanford, UC Irvine pitcher Scott Gorgen sat at home, watching on TV.

"I didn't know quite how to feel," said Gorgen, whose team had clinched a spot in a super regional against LSU the day before. "Part of me wanted them to go, and part of me wanted them to have to watch us play."

[+] EnlargeDave Serrano
Icon SMIDave Serrano is just the latest great coach at Cal State Fullerton.

A season ago, Serrano was UC Irvine's coach, taking Gorgen and the Anteaters to their first College World Series. When the Titans job opened after George Horton left for Oregon, Serrano initially denied interest. But he accepted the job shortly thereafter and left Irvine to return to Fullerton, the Southern California baseball power where he had spent eight seasons as an assistant.

"There was anger, hurt, betrayal," Gorgen said. "We're past that now."

Emotions have settled, and though Serrano tries to keep an appropriate distance, he occasionally text messages or speaks to his former players. He and Gorgen were in touch only last week.

"I'm very, very proud of those guys," Serrano said. "I got a little bit of chills when they announced that they had moved on to the super regionals. It would be a wonderful experience to get back to Omaha and see them there. And the good thing this year is we're in different brackets."

USC and UCLA, the wealthy football and basketball powers to the north, are finished for the season. But the two Orange County schools that reached the College World Series last year -- despite modest athletic budgets -- still have a chance to return.

USC has won more College World Series titles (12) than any other school, but the Trojans have won only one since the 1970s.

UCLA has won 103 NCAA team championships, including three in May, but has never won a baseball title.

Fullerton has won four -- more than any other non-BCS school -- and has reached the College World Series 15 times, including six of the past nine years.

Mike Gillespie, the former USC coach who replaced Serrano at Irvine, talked this week about the dynamics that allow Fullerton -- and now Irvine -- to compete with Pac-10 schools in baseball when they rarely can challenge them in basketball and don't even field football teams.

"Most of us recognize the history of Fullerton, going clear back to the 1970s when Augie Garrido first got it started over there," Gillespie said. "They have developed this tradition, by virtue of both their success and the different people that have worked there. I mean, we all know what it was, it was Augie and then it was Larry Cochell and Augie again and Horton and now Dave. They've had a history of great coaches, and I think it's perpetuated itself to a certain degree by the continuity."

[+] EnlargeMike Gillespie
Peter Aiken/Getty ImagesMike Gillespie and UC Irvine visit LSU in Baton Rouge this weekend.

There was no such thing as continuity at Irvine, where the program was dropped because of budget concerns in 1993 and wasn't revived until 2001.

But finding players isn't the most difficult thing in Southern California, and Fullerton and Irvine do fine with players who are sometimes leftovers.

"They can't all go to USC, UCLA, Stanford and Arizona State," Gillespie said.

The NCAA limit of 11.7 scholarships in baseball helps some smaller athletic programs, in part because it is more feasible to walk on at Fullerton, for example, than at USC, where tuition is $35,000.

UCLA and USC still produce more major league stars, but Fullerton's players keep manufacturing runs and postseason success year after year. "The player that's a great college player is not necessarily a great major league prospect," said Gillespie, whose USC teams reached four College World Series and won the 1998 title. "Baseball scouts are eyeing not, 'What is this guy now?' but 'What can he be in three, four, five years?' There are certain measures, the stopwatch, the radar. They grade out tools, stature."

Fullerton has countered with small ball for years and diligently practices the art of the bunt along with other fundamentals. Some of that advance-the-runner style trickled down from Wally Kincaid, a retired Cerritos College coach who mentored both Horton and Serrano.

Check the national statistics almost any season, and you'll find the Titans near the top in sacrifice bunts and batters hit by pitches.

"The discipline we have in this program is uncanny compared to other programs'," Fullerton first baseman Jared Clark said. "Just watching their pregames compared to us, it's nothing close. Taking ground balls, taking fly balls. Just game-like stuff, you see other teams just going through the motions. We don't do that."

The Titans know how to stretch a dollar, too. The unofficial groundskeeper for their home field is Mike Wilson, a squatty-bodied former catcher-turned-professional landscaper who has been working with the program since the 1970s. "Our alumni really help out," Clark said. "It might not be just giving us money, but we have people like Mike Wilson doing our field, fixing our field all the time. I don't know if he does it for free, but he does it on his own time."

The Titans' recent success has coincided with their ability to host regionals and super regionals at Goodwin Field after it was expanded from about 1,750 seats to 3,500 in 2000.

Pressure, pressure, pressure. I know what this program's done, and I'm not going to lie to you, I don't want to be the one to break the streak.

-- Cal State Fullerton coach Dave Serrano

This weekend, they'll host Stanford -- a team that swept the Titans early in the season -- marking the seventh time the Titans have hosted a super regional in eight years, and the second week in a row a Pac-10 school will have to play on Fullerton's campus. "When Horton left, I thought it was going to be a mess," Clark said. "Kind of like, 'Geez, going into my junior year? Why is this happening?' But once we heard that Coach Serrano was coming, we were very happy. Some guys played for him in '04, and some of the guys my year were recruited by him. I knew he was a good guy. And especially what he did with Irvine, and they were the same type of ballclub we are, he was not going to change a lot."

Garrido built the program, Horton sustained it, and now it belongs to Serrano. He is a coach who knows there are expectations, especially with a string of six consecutive super regional appearances. "Pressure, pressure, pressure," Serrano said. "I know what this program's done, and I'm not going to lie to you, I don't want to be the one to break the streak.

"It's been special people -- special coaches, special players -- which has allowed that to happen. And the belief that we can get it done. The tradition carries a lot of weight in our success."

Robyn Norwood is a former Los Angeles Times staff writer.

Robyn Norwood

Contributor, espnW.com
Robyn Norwood, the only woman to serve as president of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association, was a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times for more than two decades. She has covered 11 Final Fours, two Olympics and the Super Bowl and visited almost every podunk college town in America.