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October 11, 2006

Bruins headed the right direction

When UCLA head coach John Savage took the reins of the Bruins' program during the summer of 2004, he was well aware of the popular notion that UCLA was a sleeping giant. In addition to UCLA's wealth of resources, the program's potential made his decision to move from Irvine to Westwood an easy one.

But in his first season with the Bruins, Savage realized that his program was in the midst of an intense rebuilding process. UCLA finished 2005 with a 15-41 record.

Despite the setback, a confident Savage maintained that his program would get where it needed to be by his third season at the helm.

Looking back at that statement, you'd think that Savage was a modern-day Nostradamus. The Bruins have their sights set on a trip to the College World Series in 2007, but Savage insists that the writing has been on the wall since day one.

"I knew it would take some time to develop our program, but when you're doing it, you have to convince everyone inside the program that you will win," Savage told Rivals.com earlier this week. "We planned the roster to make a strong run in our third season. And while we're in good shape, we have unfinished business to take care of."

The Bruins took their first step to becoming a premier program last season, as they went 33-25 overall and earned a regional berth.

As the Bruins enter fall workouts, they do so without a few key players from last year's team. However, they return the bulk of their club, led by sophomore infielders Brandon Crawford and Jermaine Curtis.

Crawford and Curtis formed one of the nation's most talented infield tandems last season. Crawford finished the year hitting .318 with six home runs and 30 RBIs, while Curtis batted .336 with 21 RBIs.

The dynamic duo is flanked by first baseman Tim Stewart, outfielder Blair Dunlap and catcher Ryan Babineau. Stewart and Dunlap each hit .300 or better last season, while Babineau was flawless behind the plate.

"We feel very good about our returnees entering fall workouts," Savage said. "Brandon (Crawford) and Jermaine (Curtis) are confident and have gotten stronger, while the rest of the returning guys have adopted the same work ethic."

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With the departure of position players such as second baseman Sean Smith and outfielders Chris Jensen and Josh Roenicke, the Bruins will rely on newcomers to fill the remaining holes.

UC Santa Barbara transfer Alden Carrithers should have the edge at second base, while freshmen Jeff Rapoport and Gabe Cohen will compete for starting jobs in the outfield. Other newcomers to watch include Mickey Weisser and Casey Haerther.

"I feel that we have some outstanding options with our newcomers," Savage said. "Carrithers hits for a good average and had a great summer, while Rapoport and Cohen are very gifted athletes. In terms of power, it doesn't get much better than what Haerther and Weisser bring to the table."

While the Bruins are in good shape at the plate, their pitching staff must replace a pair of weekend starters David Huff and Hector Ambriz.

Huff was one of the nation's top newcomers last season and held opponents to a .249 batting average, while Ambriz led the team with eight wins.

"Replacing David and Hector is a huge goal of ours this fall," Savage said. "We feel like we have a talented group of new arms. But how quick they develop will tell us a lot about this team during fall workouts."

Three freshman pitchers to keep an eye this fall are left-handers Gavin Brooks and Matt Drummond, and right-hander Charles Brewer.

Drummond and Brewer are characterized as strike-throwers, while Brooks could emerge after flying under the radar because of an injury during his senior season in high school.

The trio won't be alone when fall workouts commence, as the Bruins welcome back weekend starter Tyson Brummett and right-handers Brant Rustich and Jason Novak.

Brummett had a productive junior campaign, and Novak made 23 appearances. And after Rustich missed much of last season because of a finger injury, his return to the mound could be instrumental to the Bruins' success.

Like most teams, the Bruins have more questions than answers entering fall workouts. But with a treasure chest of talent, Savage's club has the earmarks of a team that could reach the College World Series.

And if that happens, the next great philosopher might simply be known as Savage.