Cal State Fullerton baseball aiming for Omaha

Once again a heavy favorite, the Titans are ranked No. 1 in three of four preseason polls.

Cal State Fullerton is dry.

The Titans are in the midst of their longest College World Series drought in their history. The historic college baseball program has missed out on a trip to Omaha the last four seasons. It’s unheard of for a team that had its own cheering section at Rosenblatt Stadium, but the Titans have yet to even see the new Rosenblatt — T.D. Ameritrade Park in Omaha — anywhere except on TV.

The burn of last year’s Super Regional sweep at the hands of the eventual champions and new area rivals, UCLA, still stings in Fullerton.

"Having another team celebrate on our own turf and especially our own mound, it just kind of tough to see," said sophomore pitcher Justin Garza. "The one thing we need to take from last year’s loss is just how it felt."

Once again a heavy favorite, the Titans are ranked No. 1 in three of four polls. They have return a trio of All-Americans and arguably one of the best pitching rotations in the country.

Cal State Fullerton ranked No. 1 in USA Today Poll

But don’t expect the rankings to get to their heads. Head coach Rick Vanderhook says the number it isn’t as important as it looks on paper.

"It’s meaningless. It means that some people think we’re good when we haven’t even played a game yet," Vanderhook said. "We would prefer not to be where we’re at but we don’t have a choice in it."

The target on Fullerton’s back is already big enough. No need to widen it, according to Vanderhook.

"How many teams go 1-to-1 in any sport? It’s not football where you play 14 games, when it’s said and done you’ll probably play about 62 or 63 games," Vanderhook said. "We’re just trying to figure out how to deal with it. We have enough guys that are back from last year on a good team that I think they’ve figured out how to handle it, but there’s nothing we can do about it."

But it’s difficult to argue with the top ranking. The Titans are absolutely loaded.

Two sophomore right-handers in Thomas Eshelman and Garza, and junior righty Grahamm Wiest, headline the group. As a true freshman, Eshelman had the 10th-best ERA in Division I, throwing more innings than anyone else in the Top-10. He struck out only three batters all season while striking out 83 in 115.2 innings — the lowest number in NCAA history.

Garza earned a multitude of All-American honors and Wiest went 9-3 as an All-Big West Sunday starter.

The Titans even added one of the top arms in the 2013 draft in Phil Bickford. Bickford, a freshman out of Oaks Christian, spurned the Blue Jays and their 10th-overall pick money for a chance to play for the Titans.

"What matters is where we’re at at the end," Garza said. "But I definitely think that’s motivation because we definitely know it’s a huge target on our back and even bigger than last year, especially for the pitchers because everyone just wants to beat us."

This group has pitching, they have offensive and defensive depth and they have the right mix of young and old. What they don’t have, however, is College World Series hardware.

"That’s one thing good about losing — you always have that taste to go back to," Vanderhook said. "When you’re tired and feeling sorry for yourself you can look back at the end of last season and say, ok maybe it’s not as bad as it was then. It gives them a little more motivation."

Around the Big West

The Big West might be one of the premiere college baseball conferences, but that doesn’t mean they always get that respect. Last year, the conference received two at-large bids and some think this year that number could be as high as three.

"The problem with the Big West is, we are the Big West," Vanderhook said. "We aren’t the Pac-12, we aren’t the ACC, we aren’t the SEC — those power conferences, they control all of college athletics, not only football and basketball, but all of them."

Last year’s NCAA Tournament teams, Cal Poly and UC Santa Barbara, had previously been the bridesmaids and rarely the brides when it came to Tournament selections. They finally received the respect they deserved and they aren’t expected to drop off this season at all — the Mustangs were picked to finish second in the preseason media poll and the Gauchos third.

UC Irvine and its pitching riches were picked fourth, but received the single first-place vote that did not go to the Titans.

Long Beach State is also predicted to be back on the rise and it’s looking crowded at the top of the Big West.