Sure, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) has six spots in next year’s Big Dance wrapped up. Maybe the Big 12 Conference already has its name in the running for all four of the 2006 Bowl Championship Series Bowls, and the Pac-10 can’t wait for women’s volleyball season to start.
Although the anchors on College GameDay probably can’t spell Big West, let alone tell you the teams in the conference, it’s spring and that means it’s baseball season. The boys of summer are out in full force, and Big West baseball definitely has its name spelled correctly on the map.
With defending national champion Fullerton and two other 2004 NCAA Regionals teams in its ranks, the Big West Conference has the credentials to argue for a place in the upper echelon of collegiate baseball conferences.
“I think the Big West is viewed in high regard,” UCLA baseball Coach and former Irvine Head Coach John Savage said. “You’re talking about two teams that are consistently in the top 20 in Long Beach and Fullerton and they have both been national champions in the past.”
Consistency has been the mantra for Fullerton and Long Beach since becoming Big West schools. Over the past 15 seasons, one or both of the teams have reached the College World Series 11 times, winning two championships and compiling a record of 125-69 in NCAA tournament games.
The Titans have put in a disparate share of work to build their baseball program. Since 1986, Fullerton has finished lower than third in the final conference standings just three times. The school’s success is apparent not only in its all-time fourth best winning percentage in NCAA baseball history but also in its high-quality stadium, Goodwin Field, where the Titans have won 302 times since it opened in 1992.
Lately though, the Big West baseball powerhouses are starting to feel the pressure of other conference teams on the rise.
“I think the emergence of some of the other schools is making the conference even better. Irvine, Riverside and Cal Poly are coming out strong,” UCSB Head Coach Bob Brontsema said. “I think some of the schools that may have been middle-of-the-pack Big West schools have improved substantially.”
In 2004, six of the eight Big West teams finished with winning overall records, and for the fifth straight year sent three teams to Regionals. The Big West finished with the fifth best Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) out of 31 conferences in 2004.
The RPI is compiled by computing a formula based on teams’ winning percentage, strength of schedule, opponents’ winning percentage and opponents’ strength of schedule. The index is the most telling statistic in determining the competitiveness of a particular conference.
The latest RPI rankings have the Big West in the #5 spot behind the Southeastern Conference, Big 12, Pac-10 and ACC. Other conferences have noticed, making sure Big West teams get priority in scheduling preseason games.
With four teams in Baseball America’s Preseason Top 50 rankings and four Preseason All-Americans in its ranks, the Big West was sought out by no less than 10 different conferences for nonconference games.
“You want to play Big West schools,” Savage said. “I’ve coached in the WCC [West Coast Conference], the Pac-10 and the Big West. No matter where you are, you want to get all those [Big West] teams on your schedule because they have tough nonconference and conference schedules and they are always very competitive teams.”
If the RPI isn’t enough, the Big West is making a name for itself in other statistical categories. This week’s national statistics show three Big West teams among the top 50 in win-loss percentage and earned run average, with Long Beach holding the best team ERA in the nation at 2.07.
“I think the depth of the league is getting stronger and stronger with Irvine, Cal Poly and Santa Barbara’s up and coming programs,” Savage said. “I think people in the baseball community think very highly of the league, its players and its coaches.”
Individual players in the Big West have been turning heads for years, with 133 major leaguers coming out of conference schools since 1985. This year is no exception to the players’ success.
Second-place Cal Poly boasts pitchers junior Garrett Olson, who is tied for the most wins in the nation with nine, and senior Mike Bille, who has 11 saves, good for third in the country. Pacific right-hander Josh Schmidt holds a 1.28 ERA and is striking out 13.4 batters per game, putting him eighth and fourth in the nation, respectively, in those categories.
In the meantime, Olson, Fullerton junior lefthander[[left-hander]] Ricky Romero[[ok]] and Long Beach juniors shortstop Troy Tulowitzki[[ok]] and pitcher Cesar Ramos[[ok]] are all listed as part of Baseball America’s Midseason Top 50 Prospects[[top 50 midseason prospects]].
“[The Big West coaches] are all very good coaches that are recruiting to good educational schools and beautiful spots to play baseball,” Savage said. “So there’s a huge upside for good players to go to Big West schools.”
With Regionals less than a month away, expect the Big West to be well[[-]] represented on selection day, May 30.
“Year in and year out you’re talking about the PAC-10[[Pac-10]] and Big West being two of the strongest conferences not only on the West Coast[[ok]] but also in the country,” Savage said. “I think that the Big West is a great conference with a great future.”