Troy Percival is a perfect example of someone who never had to leave his own backyard to achieve what he wanted.
Now, he’s going to try to convince others that they can do the same as he takes over as the head baseball coach at his alma mater, UC Riverside.
"Troy is Riverside," UC Riverside Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Jim Woolridge said Tuesday. "He has lifelong ties to the university, to the community and to the region, and that is of particular importance as it relates to recruiting and generating interest and excitement around our baseball program here in the Inland Empire."
Percival, the former Anaheim Angels and Tampa Bay Rays closer, probably is the most famous arm to come out of a program that recently has produced a few of them. But it’s his experience as a pitcher, catcher and pitching instructor that he’s hoping will lure recruits to Riverside instead of some of the more storied programs in Southern California that the Highlanders are forced to contend with.
"It’s been a dream of mine for quite some time to be a collegiate head coach," he said Tuesday as he was formally introduced. "I truly believe that the most formative years for a baseball player are your collegiate years, and I can’t think of any better place to live out that dream than back here at UCR."
While the Highlanders are always one of the toughest outs in the Big West, they have struggled to make it back to the NCAA Tournament in recent seasons.
Percival takes over a program that is not far from being a contender — the Highlanders boast a roster full of undrafted veterans and a solid incoming freshman class — but it’s a team that had been mired in mediocrity the past few seasons.
It was seven years ago that the Highlanders made it to the NCAA Super Regional round. Two of the pitchers on that team, Joe Kelly and Marc Rzepczynski, are now with the St. Louis Cardinals. The program remained competitive in 2008 but has failed to since repeat the feat, struggling to keep up with Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine.
Longtime head coach Doug Smith produced some high-caliber players and hard-hitting teams. But since that banner pitching class, there has been little depth. The hiring of Percival to replace the retired Smith gives the team an instant boost and provides continuity with someone who has remained familiar and friendly with the program.
"On the field, our goal is to take the program to a level where every year we are battling for a Big West Conference championship and a trip to the NCAA Tournament," Percival said. "I believe that is well within our reach."
Like Woolridge said, Percival is Riverside. He grew up in the area, playing at Moreno Valley High, and never strayed far after his Highlander days, still keeping a home in the area while pitching and later instructing for the Angels. He even funded a renovation of the team’s home field at the Riverside Sports Complex.
College baseball is special and Percival wants his players to realize that. But what’s even more special is winning, and winning at home.
"I played at UCR, I’ve remained active with the program over the years, and I know the importance that Highlanders baseball has in the community," Percival said. "Part of what makes UC Riverside baseball so special is that the coaches never stop coaching. They are still there for you long after you’ve left the program, and I plan on carrying on that legacy during my time here as head coach."