Program Feature: Fullerton State & Rick Vanderhook
The year was 1973 when Cal-State Fullerton hired Augie Garrido. In sleepy (at the time) Orange County, CA and at a non-descript state school with little money and absolutely no college baseball pedigree, the hire didn't register a blip on the college baseball radar.
"Back in those days there was really only one college baseball team in the country, up the freeway named USC. They were dominating college baseball kinda like John Wooden dominated in basketball," said current head coach Rick Vanderhook.
In fact, the Trojans had won an astounding 10 national championships in their history prior to Fullerton playing a single game at the D1 level.
No one in their wildest dreams could have predicted what was ahead for the fledgling program.
Then Garrido got to work.
"The first thing Coach Garrido did was go out and get a guy named Dave Snow and they started building this thing and creating this persona that carries to this day- we're not the prettiest nor the best funded program, but we simply try to go out and get good baseball players," recalls Vanderhook.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Success was immediate for Garrido and the Titans, as they reached Omaha in their first year at the D1 level (as a member of the Pacific Coast Athletic Association) in 1975. Four years later little Cal-State Fullerton won the 1979 National Championship in what would turn out to be classic Fullerton style. After losing their Omaha opener to Mississippi State and with their backs against the proverbial wall, the Titans survived five straight elimination games and beat Arkansas 2-1 in the finale to bring home their first trophy.
The Program's success over these 43 years is staggering. Fullerton has reached a Regional in 39 of those years while advancing to Omaha 18 times. In other words, once Fullerton has been assured a post season berth, they produce a 46% "advancement rate" to Omaha. That's crazy good.
Since that day in 1975, the Titan Program has won four National Titles (1979, 1984, 1995 and 2004) while that "team up the freeway" has won just two (1978, 1998). The small, underfunded Big West program ended USC's dynasty while starting one of there own.
So how has Fullerton been able to sustain such high level performance?
One key factor is continuity. Aside from the brief stint of Larry Cochell (1988-90), every other Fullerton head coach has both played for Garrido and coached with him.
George Horton was on Garrido's 1975-76 teams, then served as an assistant under him between '90-'95 before taking over the program in 1996 after Garrido left for Texas. Horton went 490-212-1 in his 11 years at the helm, including a National Championship in 2004, before leaving to resurrect the Oregon program.
Dave Serrano pitched for Garrido in 1986 before serving as an assistant under Horton, both at Cerritos JC and at Fullerton as the pitching coach between '97-'04. Over his four years here as head coach (2008-2011) Serrano went 175-73 while making one Regional, two Supers and a CWS trip before moving on to Tennessee.
Next up is Vanderhook, who played on Garrido's 1984 national championship team and later served two stints as a Fullerton assistant ('85-'88 & '91-'07). "Hook" then spent three years under John Savage at UCLA's before coming home for good as the Titan skipper in 2012.
To date, Vanderhook has led the Program to a 235-127 record, reaching the post season in all six years, including trips to Omaha in two of the last three years.
In addition to continuity, what are the other guiding principles that contribute to Fullerton's excellence year in, and year out?
It starts with recruiting players that fit the Fullerton culture.
"We look for kids that understand how to play baseball," said Vanderhook. "It gets more difficult every year, because everything revolves around the Showcase circuit where kids don't even take infield. They don't know how".
Fullerton attracts good ballplayers who may have a shortcoming or minor flaw that scares off the "major" conferences, like smaller size or arms that don't light up radar guns. But what a Titan may lack physically is more than offset with intense competitiveness and an unyielding desire to overcome challenges.
The next ingredient is a player development philosophy rooted in mastering the fundamentals.
"Our player development approach is really about teaching the fundamental skills, like catching the ball, being in the right spots, being able to handle different situations, and trying to make them a baseball player. We stress three parts - (1) On the mound you throw strikes, (2) At the plate you put the ball in play and (3) On defense you play catch."
Another element is a commitment to facing the most difficult non-conference road schedule possible. Says Vanderhook, "it's about getting our guys in different environments, putting them in different situations to prepare them for later on the in season, early enough, so at least they have those experiences. That's been a key for as long as I can remember for this program". Last year Fullerton faced the 8th most difficult non-conference schedule in the country and thrived, going 19-12 in those contests.
The other benefit to this scheduling philosophy is building a solid RPI. "We play in the Big West conference, a very good conference but doesn't get credit on the national stage, even though we've had a team in the CWS in four years in a row (2014-UC Irvine, 2015 & '17-Fullerton, 2106- Santa Barbara). It's known that once we get in conference play, our RPI drops. We don't get credit for having the name SEC or ACC. We have to build it ourselves"
Taken together, The Fullerton Way looks at the season as a marathon, not a sprint. They're comfortable suffering some early season losses in exchange for evaluating players on the toughest stage, identifying strengths & weaknesses and then customizing in-season development plans that have Titans playing their best baseball late in the season, when in matters most.
Last year was a case in point.
The Titans entered the Super Regional at Big West rival Long Beach State having lost 5 of 6 to the Dirtbags during the regular season, being swept at Blair Field in March and losing 2 of 3 at home in the regular season's last series.
In Game 1 at Blair, Long Beach State silenced the Titan bats in posting a 3-0 win and pushing Fullerton to the brink of elimination.
Then, suddenly and out of nowhere, the Titans found their way. The Fullerton Way.
In Game 2, left-hander John Gavin blanked the Dirtbags while the offense exploded for 12 runs as the Titans evened the series with a 12-0 whitewashing.
In pivotal Game 3, Fullerton received gutty pitching performances from starter Colton Eastman and premium closer Brett Conine, holding the 'Bags to just one run on four hits. The offense mustered only 2 hits themselves, but parlayed them into a 2-1 win, punching the Program's 18th ticket to Omaha.
"For me, that was the most intense, competitive series that I'd ever been involved in. It was good because on our side I had Coach Garrido and Coach Horton (in the stands), on their side they had Mike Weathers and Dave Snow, who have played and coached against each other for a long time."
"You could have taken a line and stuck it right down the middle of the stadium. Fans were split right down the middle. It was loud, which we don't get on the West Coast, and intense. I've been in good invironments, I've played at A&M and played games at LSU, the old Box back in the days. Louisville was unblievable, but we had like 50 people there."
"At Blair, there we close to 3500 fans, I think there was 1700 Fullerton and 1700 Long Beach, and they didn't ever stop yelling for nine innings of three games in a row. It was unreal".
With the season on the line, Fullerton held Long Beach to just 1 run over 18 innings without committing an error in the most intense, high stakes environment imaginable.
They won with pitching & defense, the hallmark of Fullerton teams since day one.
Vanderhook has had some great pitching coaches in his time, including Kirk Saarloos (2012) and Jason Deitrich (2013-2016), but finds himself working with a fourth as Blake Hawksworth (2017) won't return for 2018.
Regardless, The Fullerton Way in pitching is based on, again, fundamentals.
"The first thing our guys have to do is learn how to pitch with the fastball, it doesn't matter who's teaching them to do it, it's a requirement. Once they prove they can do that, we add a second pitch. We make an effort for our guys to throw two above-average pitches before they get the opportunity to throw a third pitch."
"As a starter our guys will throw 85-105 pitches in a game. Their best pitch they'll throw 65% of the time, their next best pitch throw 30% of the time, so there's only 5% when they can throw a third pitch."
"Do one thing at a time and simplify it. They have one spot they pitch to, so do that as good as you can do it".
One former Titan "set the tone for strike throwing since I've been here" said Vanderhook. In his three years at Fullerton (2013-15) right-hander Thomas Eschelman went 28-11 with an insane 18/321 walk-to-strikeout ratio over 376.1 innings. "He can dot the butt of a frickin' gnat. It's amazing. There will never be anyone in college baseball like him".
In another example of program continuity, Eschelman "passed along what he did to the (Justin) Garza's of the world, the John Gavin's, Connor Seabold's and Colton Eastham, hopefully to a few guys that are here now".
The new Titan pitching coach is a former Fullerton hurler in Steve Rousey from Fresno State. "It's an easy fix", says Coach Hook, "Once a Titan, always a Titan. He'll bring some much needed stability to that role. He just fits. He has a good understanding of pitching. He's super smart. He's a Dave Snow decibel, who was a really good pitching coach in his day".
This year Rousey and Vanderhook must replace two stalwarts in Connor Seabold (3rd round, Philadelphia) and John Gavin (8th, San Francisco) who combined to throw over 400 high quality innings over the last two seasons.
They certainly welcome the return of Eastman, who'll be one of the nation's best Friday starters. The right-hander burst on the scene as a freshman in '16, making 15 starts, going 8-3 and show plus command in posting a 20/100 walk-to-stirkeout ratio over 100.2 innings with an impressive 2.24 ERA and .218 BAA.
Last year he made only two Big West starts after dealing with elbow tightness earlier in the season but proved he's all the way back by closing out the Stanford Regional with 6.2 masterful innings. He followed up that outing with the classic Game 3 performance in ending Long Beach's season in the Super Regional.
The Saturday starter figures to be RHP Andrew Quezada, a JC-transfer from nearby Cypress College. He features an easy delivery and a 3/4 slot with some crossfire leg action. Over 23 innings in The Cape for Y-D, Quezada showed the requisite Titan command in posting a 5/23 walk-to-strikeout ratio for manager Scott Pickler. "He's a very mature junior college kid," says Vanderhook.
Three others seems to be vying for the Sunday slot.
One is 6'2" 195lb freshman right-hander Tyler Bibee from Mission Viejo High School. "He's a strike thrower. It's a command fastball and breaking ball, the change has a ways to go. He's a big, physical kid who knows how to compete".
Another is junior Blake Workman, who proved himself a year ago over 27 appearances. He tossed 62.1 innings, made three spot starts and finished 6-3 with a 2.89 ERA.
A third option is 6'3" 210lb right-hander Tommy Wilson, another JC transfer (LA Pierce College), an advanced zone pounder who has looked good this fall. He'll get plenty of innings early in the season to prove he belongs in the rotation.
The backend of the bullpen is in great shape with Conine. "He'll close again. We tinkered with the idea of starting him, but he's too good at the end, the most important part of the game," says Vanderhook. The 6'4", 215lb right-hander was one of the nation's best closers last year with 15 saves while, guess what, walking only 6 in 45.1 innings while blowing away 43 hitters.
Conine was perhaps even better in The Cape for Wareham, whiffing 22 hitters in 12.1 innings, walking only 3. He commanded both a sharp 12-6 breaking ball and a downward 90-93 mph heater and figures to be on many pre-season All-American teams.
Positionally, Fullerton suffers significant losses in waving goodbye to five MLB draft choices in outfielder Scottie Hurst (3rd round, Cardinals), catcher Chris Hudgens (16th, Royals), infielder Dillon Persinger (18th, Cleveland), SS Timmy Richards (24th, Nationals) and 3B Taylor Bryant (33rd, Cardinals).
Setting the tone in the field will be sophomore Sahid Valenzuela, who made only 3 errors in 251 chances a year ago while playing both 2B and SS. "Sahid has played the fall at shortstop the whole time. I think he played there for two weeks last year when Timmy (Richards) go hurt with a sports hernia. He's played well over there".
"He's also our leading returning hitter, but he's little. He's not very physical but he was fired up yesterday when he registered 159 pounds on the scale. He's smart and a mature kid. He left home in the 9th grade to go live with his uncle in Watsonville, CA area to increase his visibility and play more competitive baseball".
"He's more a lead by example type. I'm still not positive but he may move over to 3rd base. He'll be somewhere on the infield".
Another returning infielder is Hank LoForte. "He's a second basemen by trade, played there half the time his freshman year. He also DH'ed last year, which at 5'6" isn't the best fit. He's our Altuve, he plays bigger than he is, he's smart. He's the baseball player, even thought he's small, its a solid short body"
"Hank might be the 3-hole hitter. That's ok, Altuve hits 3 and he's the MVP of the American League. He's been in some big spots for us, had the big hit in game 3 at Long Beach, with a 2-RBI single to take the lead. He's a seasoned veteran which is good, he's the only one we have".
Zack Weller is penciled in at 3B, "but he's missed most of the fall with a broken toe. He's a bigger, physical guy at 6'2, 210lb as a sophomore who really paid attention and really learned last year". In limited action last year, Weller hit 2 homers with 11 RBI in just 40 at-bats. He can also play 1B.
Perhaps the top incoming recruit this year is freshman Brett Borgogno, who's dad is a former Titan player. "He's a SS by trade, but he's playing 3B most of the fall to learn to play that position. He's a fast twitch guy who can run, he's not very big either, but he's got some strength to him".
Another infield piece is 4th year junior Jake Pavlevtich at 1B, who two years ago "hit something .390 in limited action. Probably the best leader, by far the smartest guy on the field. He can also play some 3B".
"So we have 5 guys in the infield mix right now".
The leading candidate behind the plate is sophomore Daniel Cope, who caught 17 games last season. "Daniel came in as a defensive guy and now he's more offensive. We just had a conversation about this position this morning. He needs to get better defensively".
"Our catching position has not been very good. We got him and a freshman named Tyler Lasch and a junior, Niko Pacheco. The game has gone pretty fast for Lasch and Pacheco behind the plate. It's the first time they've caught decent arms like this and they've got to make a move over the next two months while were off".
Such honesty, sometime brutally so, is another key trait of The Fullerton Way, as coaches since Garrido tell it like it is, without sugar. This tough-love approach leaves no room for ambiguity in the player' minds. They know exactly what's expected of them and where they stand along their development plans. Responsibility and accountability rule the day. It's a meritocracy here. Pure and simple.
The outfield looks fairly certain, starting in left field with Chris Prescott. "He's much, much, much improved. He is bigger, stronger and the game is way slower for him compared to last year. He reminds me of a kid we had a couple years ago named Dalton Blazer, who was the Big West PoY, but Prescott can also run".
Centerfield is key position it the Big West, given the plethora of large ballparks in the conference. Leading the way here is Michell Berryhill, a JC-transfer from Salt Lake Community College. "He is a left/left guy who really, really runs fast. He's learning to control it a bit on the bases". In addition to speed, Berryhill is an instinctual outfielder with a good arm who should fit right into the lineup.
The Titans are happy to see the return of right fielder Rueben Cardenas, who started as a freshman last year. While he only played 16 games, Cardenas still drove in 18 runs. "He's our best power threat. He's the most seasoned guy and is pretty good in the field".
Another newcomer is JC-transfer Jairus Richards, "who's super athletic and had a really good day yesterday. He's turned some heads this fall". Richards is a fast twitch guy with a fluid left-handed swing with some pop while also possessing a high end arm. He offers some lineup flexibility and he can play some infield positions in addition to the outfield. .
The non-conference schedule will of course test the Titans, early and often. They open with a series at Stanford, host Houston for three and make weekend trips to Tulane and Oregon State before conference play. Home & home battles with both UCLA and USC along with a two-game mid-week trip to Arizona State will keep the Titans sharp over the long haul.
In the Big West, Fullerton will again face Long Beach State six times, and Vanderhook believes "they'll be good again. They lost some arms and starters, but have both middle infielders back which always helps any clubs pitching. Santa Barbara is a physical team, which plays to their home field but not all around the conference where most are big fields. They lose (Austin) Bush but get SS (Clay) Fisher back who's a really good player."
Many programs needing to replace 7 MLB draftees may concede to a rough rebuilding year. Not here. It's next man up.
There is plenty of optimism in Fullerton. With Eastman & Conine anchoring the staff, Valenzuela & LoForte providing grit up the middle and with the upsides of Prescott and Cardenas, you'd be a fool to bet against a 40th post season appearance for the Titans.
Sprinkle in several exciting newcomers, expect them to develop over the season and Vanderhook's club can find a way to Omaha for a 19th visit..
The Fullerton Way.