In the classroom, it’s annoying when a freshman tries to look like a Ph.D. candidate by asking pretentious questions and using vocabulary from a word-of-the-day calendar. On the baseball field, however, rookies can deliver all of the big hits and make all of the clutch plays that they want and nobody will complain.
Gaucho freshman shortstop Chris Valaika played well above his first-year status in 2004, leading the team in extra base hits, at-bats, total bases and games played en route to Big West Freshman Player of the Year honors. Valaika batted .347, second on the club, with seven home runs, 15 doubles and 38 RBIs. His 77 hits broke junior second baseman Chris Malec’s freshman hits mark, and he and Malec turned more double plays than any other up-the-middle combo in the league.
“This kind of season wouldn’t have been in my wildest dreams,” Valaika said. “I thought I’d come in and have an average freshman year and be an average freshman.”
Santa Barbara knew no other shortstop than Valaika all season long, and the freshman from Newhall, Calif., rewarded his team with a league-leading 195 assists. Ultimately, Valaika fielded .960 on the season and helped the Gauchos to a school-record .974 team fielding percentage.
Valaika struck out once every six at-bats for an average ratio, but considering that he struck out nine times in his first 34 at-bats and batted .143 over that span to open his college career, he brought up his numbers considerably. The All-Big West Second-Teamer turned it around Feb. 28 against Fresno State, clouting two doubles and his first home run as a Gaucho, scoring five times and driving in three runs in the 22-9 rout of the Bulldogs.
“For those first couple of games, I was a little nervous, especially playing a position like shortstop, where you’re in charge of the infield,” Valaika, who hit .397 over the final three months of the season, said. “At first, it was hard knowing how far to push the limits and talking to seniors in the infield, but I worked hard and earned the right to talk.”
Valaika is in strong consideration for Freshman All-American status and has been invited to a tryout for the USA Baseball National Team that will travel to Japan and Taiwan this summer.
“Only 36 guys in all of the country get to play on this team,” Valaika said. “It’s a great honor for me just to be nominated.”