Checketts ready to help mold UCSB baseball
A few years ago, Andrew Checketts and his young family were at that point that many young families find themselves at – searching for a starter house.
Checketts had long been known as one of college baseball’s top assistant coaches. A successful stint at UC Riverside then led to a job with one of college baseball’s best, George Horton, at Oregon, where he helped lead the revival project in Eugene, bringing the Ducks to national prominence after the program had been dormant for 27 years.
His family, and his career were at a turning point when Santa Barbara came calling. Checketts took the next step, becoming the head coach of UC Santa Barbara in June of 2011.
“I really felt like it was a perfect starter home. The location is great and all it needs is some new paint and carpet,” Checketts said. “The timing was right for my family and the opportunity was great. I really think that we could build a winner so I’m not sure what else you could want.”
The job was quite possibly one of the most attractive out there. The picturesque Goleta campus is one of the most desirable locations on the West Coast, it boasts near-perfect baseball weather all year round and it’s a top academic institution. The competition of the Big West Conference again, one of college baseball’s power leagues, was even more attractive to Checketts.
“It is a tremendous baseball league with a lot of history and tradition in it,” Checketts said.
However, only the Gauchos have written only a small part of that history.
UCSB has won just three Big West Championships, with the last coming 27 years ago in 1986. The Gauchos haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2001, when they fell in a Super Regional to Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.
In the five seasons prior to Checketts taking over in 2012, the Gauchos had gone 135-131. The best year in that span was in 2008, when the Gauchos went 35-21, opening up Big West play with a promising 7-1 mark. In a year in which the Big West sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament, the Gauchos were the hottest-hitting team with a conference-leading .321 and an All-American right-hander in Mike Ford at the top of the rotation.
But the Gauchos stumbled down the stretch, failing to record series wins against any of the conference’s top teams as well as an at-large bid into the postseason.
Two seasons later, head coach Bob Brontsema, a long-time Gaucho coach and player, resigned after a 26-26 season and moved into an administrative role within the athletic department.
“Throughout the process, Andrew’s name kept coming up as one of the best recruiters and assistant coaches, not just in the West, but in the country,” UCSB director of athletics Mark Massari said at the time of the hire. “In only a short time at Oregon, what he and coach George Horton have accomplished has been extremely impressive.”
Horton, who is considered somewhat of a legend in college baseball, handpicked Checketts as his pitching coach after seeing the results in his seven seasons at rival UC Riverside.
In Checketts’ final season with the Highlanders in 2007, his staff helped Riverside to a Big West Championship and Super Regional appearance. Seven arms from the 2007 team were either drafted or signed pro contracts, including three in the top 10 rounds and Joe Kelly, Marc Rzepczynski and Dan Runzler all reached the major leagues.
“He’s a very bright guy,” said UCLA head coach John Savage.
Savage, who also serves as a hybrid head coach/pitching coach, has faced Checketts’ and his pitchers during his time at UC Irvine, USC and UCLA, and has continued to be impressed by his work.
“His guys have always been complete – good mechanics, high pitch-ability, mental toughness,” Savage said. “He’s been one of the premiere pitching coaches in the West over the last several years.”
Savage has been most impressed by the coaches that have mentored Checketts.
“I know that he will do a good job at Santa Barbara as a head coach because he’s been around a lot of good people,” Savage said. “Doug Smith is a great coach at Riverside, George Horton, obviously at Oregon. So you’re talking about two guys that are two of the best guys in the business.”
His three seasons under Horton were especially influential. Horton passed on a detail-oriented approach and a depth of knowledge so immense, Checketts joked that it felt like he was going to class every day to learn from the veteran professor.
“I learned how to spell, he’s so detailed you learn how to spell everything right,” Checketts said. “He’s just the most detailed coach I’ve ever been around and it’s hard for anyone to keep up with him on that standpoint on the details.”
Checketts also added, “He’ll probably use it against me in recruiting, but I always joked that going up and working for George was like getting my Ph.D in coaching.”
In three seasons, Checketts helped mold the Ducks’ pitching staff into one of the best in the nation. In 2010, just the second year of varsity competition following 27 years of dormancy, Checketts’ pitching staff was the third-best in Division I with a 3.29 ERA.
One season later, that number dropped even lower to 2.99. Checketts’ players were getting high marks on and off the field and him and Horton were cleaning up on the recruiting trail.
He took that recruiting prowess to Santa Barbara, where his first recruiting class was ranked No. 12 in the country by Baseball America. His 28 wins was the most by a first-year head coach in UCSB history and his first win, a dramatic extra-innings affair, came against his alma mater, Oregon State.
He also helped mold two All-American pitchers in Greg Mahle and Andrew Vasquez and his staff’s 451 strikeouts last season was the most in school history.
This season, the Gauchos are 4-3 with the fourth-best ERA (3.34) in the Big West. Checketts knows success isn’t instant in a conference like the Big West, but should the program continue the road its on, UC Santa Barbara may finally become a Big West power.
“I think we’ve got work to do but we’e made some progress,” Checketts said. “But we’re enjoying what we’re doing and we’re having fun building it.”