A look ahead at USD Baseball
Young talent and a tough non-conference schedule headlines the Toreros’ 2018 season
Anderson Haigler | Sports Editor | The USD Vista
As the beginning of the college baseball season approaches, University of San Diego head baseball coach Rich Hill remains firm in his team’s goal for the season.
“Our goal is reaching the College World Series and winning a national championship,” Hill said.
The Toreros’ pursuit of that goal begins with a challenging slate of non-conference games against the likes of the University of Cincinnati, the University of Michigan, the University of Arizona, and Indiana University. While opening the season against opponents from power five conferences may seem like a tall order, Coach Hill said it’s all by design.
“The first thing that it does is really prepare our guys for WCC (West Coast Conference) play,” Hill said. “We’re playing the best teams in the country every weekend, and that will prepare us for a very tough WCC schedule.”
According to Hill, this tough early-season schedule goes beyond preparing his team. College baseball’s national rankings are determined by a mathematical formula known as Rating Percentage Index (RPI), and Hill said USD’s rigorous schedule will help them bolster their ranking.
“We schedule specifically for the RPI,” Hill said. “We want to have an RPI between 35 and 45, and we play a lot of different schools. For example, we have games against the University of Cincinnati, we play Indiana for four games, we play at the University of Houston, and we have Michigan coming in. It’s a non-conference schedule built around schools from power five conferences. We want to be relevant on the national stage.”
Closer to home, however, the Toreros will also contend with a formidable group of West Coast Conference teams. With a record of 18-9 in 2017, USD missed the playoffs by just two games last year, leaving them in position to potentially rebound and compete for a conference title. However, with defending WCC champion Brigham Young University looming at the top, the Toreros might have some work to do.
“I think it starts with me,” Hill said. “I have to do a better job of preparing our guys for battle. We also want to improve in every area. I really think that having quality, disciplined, tough at bats throughout the lineup one through nine are important.”
For Hill, two teams stand out atop the WCC as teams to beat.
“BYU has the best lineup one through nine that I can remember in college baseball, and it all came together for them,” Hill said. “They’re all older, really physical righties, lefties. Playing at that altitude they’re extremely scary one through nine. Saint Mary’s has as deep of a pitching staff and an excellent head coach that really prides himself on being tough. Those two teams, I think, have separated themselves from the rest of the pack.”
On the field, the Toreros will lose seniors Hunter Mercado-Hood and Roman Garcia, as well as Toronto Blue Jays draftee Riley Adams. While these players were significant run-producers for the team, Hill is confident that this year’s squad will be able to keep up.
“It’s kinda like that ‘next man up,’ like Alabama Football,” Hill said. “We have some good young players where, you know, they kind of step forward, and the spotlight is on them. We don’t have, you know, Roman Garcia and Riley Adams with all of their home runs, but we also don’t have all of their strikeouts.”
Players such as junior utility-man Jay Schuyler, as well as junior shortstop Jeff Houghtby, will bolster the Toreros at the plate. Schuyler led the team with a .352 batting average last year, and Houghtby batted .263 in 2017, and played in all 54 games.
In regard to pitching, USD will likely lean on junior left-hander Nick Sprengel as the anchor of their rotation. Sprengel was a first-team All-WCC selection last year after posting a 9-1 record with a 3.29 Earned Run Average (ERA).
According to Coach Hill, however, the depth in the Toreros pitching rotation doesn’t stop there.
“Paul Richan has really emerged this fall, he took the summer off and was in the weight room with Coach Couch, and he’s really blossoming into a front-line kind of everyday guy,” Hill said.
Richan, a junior right-hander, appeared in 18 games last season with a 3.05 ERA.
In addition, Hill mentioned that sophomore righty Chris Murphy could be a factor for the Toreros in 2018.
“Chris Murphy I think is really ready to step forward,” Hill said. “He’s a year older and stronger. He’s very good at the mental game.”
Murphy posted a ERA of 4.17 in his freshman season last year.
Instead of focusing on specific expectations for the team’s performance, Coach Hill emphasized staying in the moment.
“I’m locked in on the moment,” Hill said. “It’s easy to start looking ahead. It all kind of comes back to being great today. You try to bring right back to the present moment and try to be great today, and take it a week at a time — what we need to do in terms of all of our defense, our offense, our baserunning, our pitching, and winning the ‘dugout war.’ And then it goes into physical conditioning and mental conditioning, so there’s like seven things we have to be great at.”
Come mid-February, Fowler Park will be abuzz as the Toreros take the field in game action for the first time since last spring. According to Coach Hill, the Toreros are looking forward to it.
“We built Fowler Park for a reason,” Hill said. “The energy, the excitement, the atmosphere is so cool when, you know, the University of Arkansas comes in here on a Sunday, or the University of Michigan comes in here on a Friday night, opening night versus Cincinnati. Those are fun games for our students and for our fans to come to. The energy is very electric here at Fowler Park, and as a team we really enjoy that.”
The Toreros open their 2018 season at home on Friday, Feb. 16 at 6 p.m. against the University of Cincinnati.