Dec. 12, 1997

    1998 Season Outlook

    For USC baseball, there's a lot to celebrate in 1998.

    After all, it's a year that marks the 50th anniversary of USC baseball's first-ever national championship team (1948). The Trojans, who have won an unprecedented 11 national titles, will also commemorate three other NCAA championship anniversaries this year: 40th (1958), 30th (1968) and 20th(1978). And the 1998 Trojans could add another year to this anniversary celebration if USC continues to build upon the successes of this current decade.

    Consider these accomplishments in the 1990s:

  • USC is tops among all conference schools with the best winning percentage (.655, 325-171);

  • USC is No. 1 (tied with Stanford) for most wins in Pacific-10 Southern Division play (150);

  • USC has had six seasons, including the last four, of 40 or more wins;

  • USC has captured three conference championships (1991 and back-to-back titles in 1995 and 1996);

  • USC has reached the NCAA Regional Finals the past five years (and six times in the 1990s);

  • And, finally, USC ended a 17-year drought when the 1995 Trojans made it to the College World Series and finished as the nation's runner-up.

    USC head coach Mike Gillespie (now in his 12th year at the Trojan helm) has yet another reason to rejoice in 1998 with the surprise return of senior righthander Seth Etherton, the 1996 Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year who was also an All-Conference first teamer in 1997. Etherton, an All-American candidate, was expected to sign a professional contract following his junior season but elected to return to USC for his final year.

    And Etherton joins 16 other returning lettermen (including six starters) and 12 newcomers (including three junior college transfers) in 1998, giving USC one of its deepest and most experienced teams ever.

    After winning back-to-back Pacific-10 baseball titles in 1995 and 1996, USC went 44-20 overall (17- 13 in league for third place) in 1997 and reached the final game of the South II Regional at Tuscaloosa (Ala.). Gone from that team are seven seniors: pitcher Randy Flores (9-5, 4.46 ERA in 1997), a 3-time All- Conference pick and the 1995 Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year who holds USC's career record for victories (42); shortstop Marc Mirizzi (.325), a 1997 All-Pac-10 first teamer; 3-year first baseman Greg Walbridge (.315), who was named to the 1997 Pac-10 All-Academic first team; catcher Jason Brown (.368), a 1997 All-Pac-10 honorable mention selection; pitcher Scott Henderson (8-4, 5.82), a 1996 All-Pac-10 honorable mention selection; pitcher-designated hitter Brian Ponchak (0-0, 10.13/.282); and relief pitcher Paul Sanchez (0-0, 6.55). Despite the loss of these seven Trojans, USC still has an abundance of talent coming back. So it's very possible that Troy could be even better in 1998.

    "We have every reason to believe that we will be an outstanding team this year," says Gillespie, a three-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year (1991-95-96) who has a 434-250-2 (.634) record in 11 seasons at Troy. "We have a great blend of experienced players as well as new faces. We have tremendous depth in both pitchers and position players. The defense will again be solid. Offensively, we have tough outs with legitimate power from top to bottom in our lineup. We just need a couple of pitchers to step up and take over the vacant starting spots."

    USC's young but skillful pitching corps will be bolstered by the return of the senior Etherton (10-2, 2.96 ERA), who will serve as the ace of the staff. Gillespie has several gifted arms to choose from in filling the remaining three starting spots: junior righthanders Steve Immel (7-4, 4.33), a 1997 part-time starter, Craig Jones (1-1, 4.37 ERA) and Mike Penney (1-0, 5.05), junior lefthander Jason Saenz (0-0, 8.36) and freshman righthander Rik Currier, who comes to USC after a successful prep career at Capistrano Valley High in Mission Viejo (Calif.).

    Nowhere is USC's depth in 1998 more evident than in its bullpen, which has talent from both the left and right sides. Heading that cast is senior righthander Jack Krawczyk, the Pac-10's top reliever for the past two seasons. Krawczyk (2-3, 3.20), who posted a league-leading 11 saves in 1997 after leading the Pac-10 with 12 in 1996, sits atop USC's career saves list with 26 (tied with Brian Nichols).

    Joining him in the bullpen are senior righthander Mike Weibling (4-1, 3.86), also an occasional starter, junior righthander Brian Vieira (0-0, 6.23), junior lefthanders Don DiDomizio (0-0, 9.00) and Jason Lane, a newcomer from Santa Rosa Junior College who was the state J.C. Player of the Year in 1997 (he might also play first base, outfield or designated hitter); sophomore lefthander Chris Tessman, a 1997 reserve, and sophomore righthanders Raul Lepe (0-0, 0.00) and Peter Krogh, a 1997 reserve.

    A quartet of exciting freshmen could also serve as relievers for the Trojans in 1998: righthander Marco Hernandez, a 1997 redshirt; righthander Tanner Eriksen from Bullard High in Fresno (Calif.); righthander Shaun Kramer from Diamond Bar (Calif.) High; and lefthander Ronald Flores from El Rancho High in Pico Rivera (Calif.), the younger brother of Trojan career win leader Randy Flores.

    And, on the receiving end of these numerous pitchers, USC is fortunate to have one of the top catchers in the nation in sophomore Eric Munson (.336, 13 home runs, 50 RBI). Munson, who was tabbed as the 1997 Freshman of the Year by The Sporting News, also earned 1997 Freshman All-American and All-Pac-10 first team honors. He played for the USA National Team during the summer of 1997.

    Backing up Munson is senior Jeff DePippo (.310), who could also see time at all three outfield positions. Four other capable catchers--junior Camilo Gomez (.000), sophomore Josh Townsend (.000) and redshirt freshman Mike McHargue and freshman Brandon Mugavero from Lakewood (Calif.) High--give Troy one of the deepest catching corps in the nation.

    Another area of strength for the Trojans in 1998 will be found in its infield, which is anchored by senior second baseman Wes Rachels, a 1997 All-Pac-10 first teamer. Rachels, a steady and consistent fielder, hit a team-leading .364 and also led the Trojans with 15 stolen bases in 1997. He'll be backed up by junior Dominic Correa, a transfer from Sacramento (Calif.) City College who joined the Trojans in January. Senior Morgan Ensberg (.306, 8, 44), a mainstay at third base for the past two years, returns for his senior season at the "hot corner." Junior Oscar Casillas and redshirt freshman Josh Persell will fill in as reserves at third base.

    Taking over at first base for the graduated Walbridge is junior Robb Gorr (.347), USC's starter in center field last year who led the team in RBI (52) and runs (64). A versatile athlete, Gorr can play any infield or outfield position. He will be backed up by junior lefthanded pitcher Lane, sophomore Carlos Casillas (the younger brother of Oscar) and freshman Billy Peavey from Serra High in San Mateo (Calif.).

    Despite the loss of All-Pac-10 shortstop Mirizzi, USC still has two skilled players to man that middle infield spot: sophomore Kevin Schultz (.500), who saw limited action last year, and freshman Seth Davidson, an All-State performer from University High in San Diego (Calif.) who played for the 1997 USA Junior National team.

    Also providing depth at all infield positions for the Trojans are redshirt freshman Josh Self and freshman Ray Kasper from Loyola High in Los Angeles (Calif.).

    USC's outfield in 1998 features four exciting prospects: senior Jeremy Freitas (.277, 7, 35), juniors Greg Hanoian (.429) and Brad Ticehurst (.328) and freshman Rod Perry Jr., also a wide receiver on the Trojan football team who came to USC from Mater Dei High in Santa Ana (Calif.). Hanoian was USC's leading hitter last year before shoulder surgery prematurely ended his season. Both Freitas (broken finger) and Perry (knee surgery) are recovering from injuries suffered this past fall.

    Catcher DePippo and pitcher Lane could also see time in the outfield or serve as USC's designated hitter, along with first baseman Casillas and catcher Munson.

    With the abundance of talented players--both veterans and newcomers--on this year's Trojan squad, it's no wonder that Gillespie--and assistant coaches John Savage, Andy Nieto and Rob Klein--are looking forward to the start of the 1998 season.

    "This group of athletes has a chance to develop into an outstanding team," says Gillespie. "It is a very complete team in all aspects of the game with players who are experienced as well as confident.

    "Additionally, we have a nucleus of players (Etherton, Rachels, Krawczyk, DePippo and Ensberg) who have been through the pressure-filled road to the College World Series before (in 1995). Because of them, I think we have a good chance to compete for another conference title as well as the national championship."

    Now there's another good reason to celebrate.