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January 20, 2009

San Diego ready for another run

San Diego almost has accomplished every goal.

The Toreros have become the premier program in the WCC and a top program on the West Coast. They also have made an imprint on the national scene. But even after accomplishing so much, the Toreros have much more to prove.

Winning 40 or more games during the regular season is fine and dandy for most coaches, but Rich Hill wants more. He wants to guide his program to the College World Series.

Could it finally happen this season?

The Toreros must replace 2008 Rivals.com National Pitcher of the Year Brian Matusz and two-way star Josh Romanski, among others. However, they welcome back almost every key hitter and another talented pitching staff.

Hill listed his team's strengths as quality of pitchers, pitching depth and offensive experience from top to bottom in the lineup.

In terms of weaknesses, Hill prefers to call them challenges. However, he said the Toreros must find a way to hit for more power.

If San Diego's offense can step up and the pitching staff continues where it left off last season, there's no reason why the Toreros shouldn't win a regional, compete in a super regional and have a chance to get to Omaha.

That goal eventually will get accomplished. Hill just hopes it occurs sooner rather than later.


SAN DIEGO AT-A-GLANCE
Sophomore third baseman Victor Sanchez must be more consistent at the plate.
LAST SEASON
Record: 44-17, 16-5 in WCC
In a nutshell: After earning a national seed two seasons ago and failing to advance to a super regional, San Diego entered last season with a chip on its shoulder. The Toreros, though, had another good campaign but were unable to make a bigger statement on the national stage. USD put together another 40-plus win season and also compiled an impressive conference record. USD competed in the Long Beach regional and lost to eventual national champion Fresno State in the regional title game. The Toreros had another successful campaign, but didn't meet their biggest goals.
PROBABLE STARTERS

Meador
C Nick McCoy (Jr.)
1B Jose Valerio (Sr.)
2B Zach Walters (So.)
SS Sean Nicol (Sr.)
3B Victor Sanchez (So.)
OF Bryan Haar (Fr.)
OF Kevin Muno (Jr.)
OF James Meador (Jr.)
DH Tony Strazzara (So.)/Mike Lugo (Sr.)
SP Kyle Blair (So.)
SP Sammy Solis (So.)
SP Matt Thomson (Jr.)
CP AJ Griffin (Jr.)
Head coach: Rich Hill
2009 OUTLOOK
The Toreros haven't taken the next step and reached a super regional the last couple seasons, but hope to finally make that happen this season. The Toreros obviously have some tough holes to fill with the departures of ace pitcher Brian Matusz and talented two-way player Josh Romanski. But don't let those departures fool you, San Diego still is in very good shape. USD welcomes back several seasoned hitters, while the pitching staff is in great shape with the return of Kyle Blair, Sammy Solis, AJ Griffin and others. The Toreros should have a productive offense and a very good pitching staff. That usually is a great combo for success, but the Toreros are looking at the bigger picture. They want to take the next step on the national stage.
Offense

The first thing you think about when it comes to San Diego is pitching, but the offense hopes to step up this season.

The Toreros finished last season hitting .304 as a team and welcomes back several key players, including leading hitter James Meador, Jose Valerio, Kevin Muno, Sean Nicol and Victor Sanchez.

Meador batted .374 with six homers and 57 RBIs last season. He also recorded 16 doubles, three triples and 120 total bases. Additionally, he slugged .561 and had a .422 on-base percentage.

Valerio finished last season hitting .336 with five homers and 26 RBIs. He also had a .497 slugging percentage and a .379 on-base percentage.

Muno batted .326 with four homers and 29 RBIs last season, while Nicol hit .313 with 27 RBIs.

Sanchez could take his game to the next level this season. A highly touted player out of high school, Sanchez hit for power last season. However, he only had a .268 batting average and a dismal on-base percentage of .346.

Also keep an eye on Zach Walters and Tony Strazzara.

Walters batted .265 with a home run and 13 RBIs last season, while Strazzara hit .278 with 15 RBIs in just 79 at bats.

This team is in great shape if the offense steps up.


Starting pitching

The Toreros are without weekend starters Brian Matusz and Josh Romanski this season, but Hill still is confident about this unit for good reason.

San Diego always seems to have a great pitching staff and that shouldn't change this season.

The Toreros, as a team, had a 3.40 ERA last season. This season, they welcome back Kyle Blair, Sammy Solis, Matt Thomson and Matt Couch.

Blair made 12 starts last season and had a 3.86 ERA in 74 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 99 and walked 34, while opponents hit him at a .221 clip.

Solis made seven starts and 17 appearances last season and had a 3.83 ERA in 49 1/3 innings. He also struck out 42 and walked 12, while opponents hit him at a .268 clip.

Thomson had a strong fall and coaches expect him to have a solid '09 campaign. The junior right-hander made 16 appearances last season and had a 3.86 ERA in 32 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 21 and walked 11.

Couch, a senior, could be the wild card. After missing last season with Tommy John surgery, Couch hopes to end his career with a bang. As a junior two seasons ago, he made 16 starts and had a 3.60 ERA in 100 innings.

The starting rotation once again will be strong.


Bullpen

There are some roles to fill with Sammy Solis and Matt Thomson becoming full-time starters this spring, but the bullpen still is in good shape.

Though other pitchers definitely will make noise at some point this season, closer AJ Griffin and reliever Darrin Campbell are in a class of their own.

Griffin is one of the nation's best closers and is coming off a monster sophomore campaign. He made 29 appearances last season and had a 1.96 ERA in 46 innings of work. He also recorded 14 saves and struck out 49 while walking 12. Opponents hit Griffin at a .192 clip.

Campbell is the sleeper of the staff. He has battled some injury issues in the past, but really stepped up his game during fall workouts. Campbell made 14 appearances last season and had a 4.01 ERA in 24 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 18 and walked 4, while opponents hit him at a .298 clip.

Look for the bullpen to once again be one of the nation's best.


Shoes to Fill

The Toreros have a few shoes to fill this season but still are in great shape.

On the mound, USD must find a way to replace Brian Matusz, Josh Romanski and Ricardo Pecina.

Matusz made 14 starts last season and had a 1.71 ERA in 105 innings of work. He also struck out 141 and walked 22, while opponents hit him at a .211 clip.

Romanski was a two-way star for the Toreros. He had a 4.00 ERA in 96 2/3 innings of work as a pitcher last season, while he batted .324 with six homers and 49 RBIs. He also recorded 14 doubles, one triple and 107 total bases.

Pecina also is a tough loss. He made 16 appearances last season and had a 3.29 ERA in 63 innings of work. He also struck out 78 and walked 21, while opponents hit him at a .252 clip.

Offensively, the Toreros must replace Kevin Hansen and Logan Gelbrich.

Hansen batted .338 with a home run and 40 RBIs last season, while Gelbrich batted .271 with eight homers and 34 RBIs.


Must Step Up

San Diego has several players that will be key contributors this season, but three players really need to step up, Victor Sanchez, Kyle Blair and Sammy Solis.

Sanchez was a very highly touted player out of high school and showed great power as a freshman last season. However, his batting average and on-base percentage were dismal. Those numbers must improve this season.

Blair and Solis each had important roles last season, but with Matusz, Romanski and Pecina out of the mix this spring, there's not as much room for error.

If Sanchez, Blair and Solis have productive campaigns, the Toreros once again should have a great campaign.


Impact Newcomer

The Toreros won't have to rely too much on newcomers, but keep an eye on freshman outfielder Bryan Haar.

The 6-foot-3, 290-pounder is versatile and can play several positions. The Toreros, however, really need him to be a star in the outfield this season.

Haar also will be very important from a depth chart standpoint.

Kendall Rogers is the college baseball editor for Rivals.com and Yahoo! Sports. He can be reached at rogersk@yahoo-inc.com.