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NCAA bid likely for young Bears squad

By Ralph Gaston Daily Planet Correspondent
Monday May 21, 2001


This afternoon, ESPN will carry an NCAA postseason selection show, and after a lengthy absence, Cal will likely be among the participants. But this is no repeat of MarchMadness. Instead, the baseball team is aiming for their first run at the College World Series since 1995.  

“I’m not sure we’re in yet,” admitted Cal head coach David Esquer. “I’m very paranoid in that respect. Hopefully we’ll get our name called on Monday.” 

This year’s Cal team has defied expectations with their 33-23 record. After losing Xavier Nady and Mike Tonis to the draft, many believed that this team would suffer through ayear of hard knocks. Esquer himself was not sure of what to expect from his inexperienced squad. 

“We had a lot of inexperienced players in key roles,” said Esquer. “Conor Jackson was a freshman, Jeff Dragicevich was a freshman, (Brian) Horwitz... Carson White was a junior college transfer, so he hadn’t played in the Pac-10.”  

However, the team’s young bats were up to the challenge. Horwitz embarked on a school-record 25-game hit streak, Jackson finished with an even .300 average, and White hit .340, tied for the team lead with 49 runs batted in, and led Cal with a .575 slugging percentage. 

The one strength of this year’s team coming into the season was the pitching staff.  

“We got two arms back from injury in (Jason) Dennis and (Ryan) Atkinson, and Trevor Hutchinson was back as the ace,” said Esquer.  

Cal also had the benefit of an effective relief corps, an area in which they struggled during the 2000 season. David Cash (10-3), Blake Read, and Andrew Sproul were very effective as long relievers.  

“Plus, we knew we had a few freshman who would contribute in Brian Montalbo and Matt Brown,” Esquer said. 

Brown led the team with eight saves, and Montalbo, a 4th round pick of the Atlanta Braves, served as a long reliever and spot starter. However, Cal’s run towards the postseason really picked up steam when Hutchinson got into a groove.  

“The team didn’t play well behind Trevor early on; we needed to get him on a roll,” said Esquer.  

Since gutting out a victory against Arizona on April 20th, Hutchinson (6-6) has won four consecutive games.  

“It really helps to be winning going in; the team has a lot of confidence,” said the junior right-hander. “I had some bad luck early in the season, but now everything is going well.” 

Cal struggled early on, losing games in late innings and often by two runs or less.  

“We just had to improve on little things, fundamentals,” said Esquer. “When we play good defense, we can play with anyone.”  

The team faced its nadir on April 17th, when they dropped a 10-6 decision to St. Mary’s. At 22-19 overall, and 7-8 in the Pac-10 with three conference series left to play, the Bears took control of their postseason destiny. Cal took two of three from Arizona and Stanford, then swept UCLA in Los Angeles. As the dust settled, the Bears found themselves at the end of a 7-2 conference run that landed them in third place in the Pac-10.  

As the finish line approached, the Bears seemed to sense the postseason. They rallied to beat Santa Clara in their final home game on May 8th, then traveled to Kansas State and swept the Wildcats to cap a season-ending 9-2 run. “We’re playing with a lot of confidence right now,” said Hutchinson.  

Finishing ten games over .500, and in third place in the Pac-10 would seem to ensure Cal’s inclusion in the NCAA Regionals. However, Coach Esquer isn’t satisfied with a mere playoff invitation.  

“We can’t just be happy to be there,” he said. “Most teams are just happy to get there, then they go two (losses) and out. We have to believe we can win the region.”