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August 2, 2007

Rising programs: No. 7 UC Riverside

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    With fall workouts in the not too distant future, we continue our inside look at many programs around the country.

    In our latest series, we breakdown the nation's Top 10 Rising Programs.

    Though the top spot won't be unveiled until next week, we continue the countdown with a team that won the Big West in 2007 - UC Riverside.

    After putting together less than stellar campaigns in 2006 and 2005, the Highlanders broke through in 2007 with an impressive 38-21 overall mark.

    Despite not reaching the College World Series like conference counterparts UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton, the stage has officially been set for the Highlanders.

    Rising Programs: No. 7 UC Riverside
    Why are they rising?
    After consistently taking a backseat to conference counterparts Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State and others, the Highlanders made a significant statement in 2007. Before the season began, coach Doug Smith was confident in his team's ability to take the next step. They did just that. Not only did the Highlanders win the league crown and make an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, they also changed the way pundits - such as me - perceived their program on the national stage. After experiencing success last season and with the return of several talented players this fall, the stage is set for even more success. Even with some holes to fill in 2008, UCR will have the confidence needed to succeed.

    2007 Year in Review
    With one of the Big West's most talented teams in 2007, the Highlanders entered the season with high expectations and a target on their backs. But as the season progressed, Riverside didn't succumb to the pressure. Not only did the Highlanders win the Big West crown, they also swept Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State. After winning the league title, UCR was dealt a serious blow when it was sent to the Tempe Regional to face nationally-seeded Arizona State and Nebraska. There, the Highlanders defeated Nebraska in the first game before losing to the Sun Devils and Huskers in consecutive contests. While Coach Smith and Riverside didn't finish the season on the right foot, they certainly had a season to remember. Ace right-hander James Simmons was one of the nation's top pitchers, while shortstop Jaime Pedroza tallied impressive numbers at the plate. What a year it was for UCR.

    What the future holds
    We've all heard the old adage that winning cures everything, but that might actually be the case with UC Riverside. Before 2007, the Highlanders had issues breaking through in the Big West. But after a successful campaign, Riverside knows it can win titles and compete for a College World Series berth. Looking at the immediate future, the Highlanders enter fall workouts with some holes to fill on the mound. However, their situation at the plate is a different story. Though UCR must find a way to replace talented shortstop Jaime Pedroza, they return an outstanding outfield with Carl Uhl, Joey Gonzales and Aaron Wible leading the charge. The Highlanders also welcome back Ryan Goetz, Mike Vass and Mark Samuelson, among others. On the mound, junior Matt Montgomery must rise to the occasion, while fellow right-hander Joe Kelly could be asked to log more innings after a phenomenal freshman campaign.

    Kendall's analysis
    During the past few seasons, I've gained a deeper respect for the Big West and many programs throughout the league. While Cal State Fullerton is still the cream of the crop, Long Beach State also has some impressive history. Additionally, UC Irvine appears to be a program on the rise after reaching the CWS in 2007. Despite not getting to the CWS last season, we're grouping the Highlanders with the Anteaters in the rising programs department. While the Highlanders entered 2007 with some pressure, they passed almost every test in impressive fashion. Additionally, they raised the eyebrows of many by winning the league crown. Though some might disagree, coach Doug Smith and the Highlanders finally have something to hang their hats on. That development should help them on the field. But more importantly, it should give them a recruiting boost.

    Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at kendall@rivals.com.