Experience and Expectation

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Written by Sarah Bergstrom, USC blog contributor

"Experience is the best teacher."

Julius Caesar offered this bit of wisdom over 2,000 years ago, but it rings just as true for the USC Baseball team as it begins its 2014 season. Inexperience, especially on the mound, was the source of the Trojans' struggles last year as they finished 20-36, losing 12 games by one or two runs. A significant increase in experience this season looks now to be the key to their success. Despite having two-thirds of the team made up of underclassmen, this year's squad has been tried and tested, preparing them for what lies ahead.

"We might be young in years still but I don't think we are young in experience like last year," explains senior pitcher Bob Wheatley. "This year it's the opposite. Because we had so many freshmen play last year, they gained a lot of experience - both good and bad. They were thrown in the fire and I think we will benefit from that."

With more experience comes greater expectation. The bar has been raised for this team as close to 600 innings of Division I baseball return to the field, in comparison to last year's team which brought in just 120 innings of total game experience. Head coach Dan Hubbs expects that this team will be more consistent, a product of understanding the rigors of the Pac-12 and a necessity to winning close games and improving upon last season. According to Hubbs, a major factor in creating overall consistency is the expected performance of the sophomore class this season. 

"In terms of capabilities, we are obviously expecting the sophomore class to make a huge jump from last year," Hubbs said. "We invested a lot of time into them playing both in the field and on the mound and I think that they are ready for the challenge."

Infielder A.J. Ramirez and outfielders Vahn Bozoian, Bobby Stahel, and Timmy Robinson are just four of the highlighted sophomore class members expected to make an immediate impact. As a whole, the Trojans return seven starters in the field including senior third baseman Kevin Swick, second baseman Dante Flores and 2013 All-Pac-12 honorable mention catcher Garrett Stubbs. 

One of Hubbs' biggest lessons after his first year as head coach was the need to disperse responsibility among the coaching staff in order for the team to function better on both offense and defense. This season, assistant coaches Matt Curtis, Gabe Alvarez and Vinny Lopez will be in almost complete control of the offense. This allows Hubbs to focus on his wheelhouse - pitching - and the coach is confident that the Trojans have the makings of a good staff.

Junior Wyatt Strahan will be starting on Friday, a righty who finished with a team-low ERA of 2.45 last season. Bob Wheatley, who possessed an ERA of 2.78 last year, will make the start on Saturday, and Kyle Twomey, a sophomore surrounded by much anticipation, will start on Sunday.  A combination of eight or nine other available pitchers will make up the backside of the pitching rotation. 

While the team is eager to show the fruits of their gained experience, the Trojans also welcome nine freshmen who have a good chance of making their own mark this year. A major focus of the offseason has been to integrate the freshmen, foster a strong team dynamic and get everyone on the same page heading into spring. 

"The older guys are talking all the time to the younger guys about what to expect," notes Hubbs. "We've really tried to emphasize that communication to everyone on the team. I think this older group has done a fantastic job, the best I've seen, at bringing the whole team together."

Freshman catcher Jeremy Martinez has already learned from the older members of this team and as he looks forward to beginning his collegiate baseball career, he recognizes that staying close as a unit and gleaning wisdom from the players around him is the quickest route to success. 

"The upperclassmen have done a great job of disciplining the younger guys, being honest when we are struggling and helping us out when things aren't going our way," says the catcher. "They've been the big brothers that we need."

Part of this team chemistry developed in the fall when the coaching staff led the group through an exercise in creating a mission statement based solely on what the players wanted. Hubbs and his coaching staff want their players to embrace the reality that this is their team and that each and every member has something valuable to bring to the table. Senior Bob Wheatley has been quick to embrace this philosophy and is thrilled about the dynamic this team already has without having played a game.

"More than anything, this team is focused on winning and doing whatever it takes to win. I feel like this is the closest team that I've been on since I've been here and it's really not even close," says Wheatley.

The entire team will take on its first test this weekend as Northwestern visits Dedeaux Field for a series beginning on Friday. The Trojans will have just under one month of preseason play before beginning the demanding regular season in the Pac-12. Hubbs believes the key to preparing for the ever-competitive conference is competing at a higher standard from day one and taking the season one game at a time.

"We need to do a better job of sustaining a level of play throughout the season. We have to go about our game and our preparation to play the same way, at an exceptional level, every time we step on the field," explains Hubbs. "Every game is a game. If we create our own identity and own who we are, it's not going to matter who we play. If we play well we will win."

This weekend the Trojans kick off their season against the Wildcats more experienced and more unified. It will be the last USC home opener for Wheatley, Swick and four others playing in their senior campaigns, and the beginning of what they hope is a special spring. Wheatley understands that the road ahead is long and tough, but the senior is set on going out with a bang.

"We learned last year that nothing is going to come easy," Wheatley says. "If we want to do the things that we say we want to do, we've got to make them happen. It's not going to be easy, it takes a lot of work and it takes performance. Nobody is going to roll over for USC. The other teams in the Pac don't want us to be back on top. It's up to us to make those things happen.

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