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October 18, 2008

UCLA moving forward with new outlook

Last fall, UCLA was heavily hyped as a national title contender. But the Bruins headed back to Westwood after NCAA Regional play emotionally broken. Some say what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Last season was supposed to be their year. This fall, things are different.

Failing to finish the season ranked after being a national title contender is not something most clubs want to talk about. The Bruins, however, are different. Sure, they're disappointed about how last season ended. However, they're more motivated than ever and they don't mind talking about it.

"We didn't get to Omaha, and that's the bottom line," UCLA coach John Savage told Rivals.com. "Last season was supposed to be our Omaha year, and the expectations certainly were there. I'm just disappointed we didn't get there."

The Bruins likely will start the season unranked. They're without infielders Brandon Crawford and Jermaine Curtis and pitcher Tim Murphy, who were drafted and signed pro contracts this past summer. They also have a pair of new coaches -- Rick Vanderhook and Steve Pearse. But perhaps most importantly, the Bruins have a new and improved attitude.

Though change sometimes can be bad, the opposite likely will be true for UCLA.

"We lost some good players, but I really think what happened last season gives our guys a little more motivation," Savage said. "I think the tone of this program is set, and we certainly expect to be in Omaha at the end of the year."

Savage and the Bruins put the new attitude into action this summer. Instead of sitting back and sulking about what could've been, they went out and made a blockbuster addition by bringing in Vanderhook, who was a heralded long-time assistant at Cal State Fullerton. Vanderhook helped the Titans to a pair of national titles in his 21 seasons with the program. He's also a hard-nosed coach, which is exactly what UCLA needs.

Inside the Pac-10
California is very pleased with junior outfielder Brett Jackson this fall. Jackson is hitting the baseball very well and also is making defensive strides in center field. The Bears also are pleased with sophomore right-handed pitcher Stephen Pistoresi. Pistoresi is throwing 89-98 mph with good command of three pitches

Oregon State is very pleased with junior shortstop Joey Wong. Wong always has been a good defender, but the veteran is coming around at the plate. Wong is having a good fall offensively, and also is assuming a greater leadership role by working with the younger players on the team. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Taylor Starr also is having an encouraging fall. Starr has made six appearances this fall and has struck out 10 and allowed just one run in six innings of work.

Southern Cal is very pleased with junior right-handed pitcher Brad Boxberger and veteran shortstop Grant Green. Boxberger is throwing well this fall, while Green is showing why he's likely a top 10 pick in the MLB Draft next summer. In other news, junior infielder/pitcher Hector Rabago is making a very smooth transition to the catcher position, while Robert Stock likely will be a weekend starter.

Oregon is encouraged by the play of freshman two-way player Casey Serna. Serna likely will be one of the Ducks' starting middle infielders, but also has shown a lot on the mound. The Ducks also believe Serna will hit near the top of the lineup. Freshman right-handed pitcher Scott McGough is another player to watch. McGough may also contribute as a middle infielder, but is showing maturity and composure on the mound.

Stanford is without several players from last year's team, but also returns many key cogs. Seniors Brent Milleville and Joey August are two of those cogs, and both have made major strides at the plate so far this fall.
"Vanderhook knows how to coach offense, but most importantly, he knows what it takes to win at a high level," Savage said. "He has such a pulse on the West Coast, and the timing was right to bring him into this program."

The timing also was right for other reasons. The Bruins must replace three of their top four hitters, including leading hitter Alden Carrithers, Curtis and Crawford. Carrithers hit .377 last season while Curtis and Crawford finished the year hitting .306 and .302, respectively.

Vanderhook's job also includes making sure the Bruins don't once again succumb to the MLB draft blues that plagued them last season.

Vanderhook's message already is resonating loud and clear with UCLA hitters.

"Vanderhook is all about hard work but also is about having fun out there as well," said UCLA veteran Casey Haerther, who hit .324 with 12 homers and 52 RBIs last season. "His resume alone is great and he's kind of like us, he feels there's no better place to be than on a baseball field."

Vanderhook isn't the only UCLA coach making a statement this fall. Savage, Haerther said, also has displayed more fire than in past seasons.

"Coach Savage definitely is more motivated, as everything is more fast-paced and he's stressing practicing like you want to play," Haerther said.

UCLA junior left-handed pitcher Gavin Brooks also has noticed a difference with the coaching staff's attitudes. The coaches, Brooks says, complement each other well.

"Savage has always been very dedicated, but now we know we have to work harder to get where we want to be," Brooks said. "The new coaches brought in a new mindset, and everyone wants to get over the hump."

If the Bruins are to get over the hump in the near future, things must change. The Bruins didn't lose respect by failing to meet expectations last season but certainly left pundits doubting.

Perhaps most importantly last season, the Bruins found out the harsh reality of being one of the hunted teams in college baseball. Now they rejoin many programs as hunters, where fewer people expect them to compete for the national title.

"Obviously last year we were ranked high to start the season, and everyone knows how that ended," Haerther said. "Most people likely will be down on us, but that's OK because it doesn't matter where you start the season. It's how you end the season."

Even with important holes to fill this fall, the Bruins are headed in the right direction in the attitude department. And it's a stark contrast from last year's team.

Attitude sometimes can be the difference between sitting at home and finishing the season in Omaha, and there's not a team that knows that more than UCLA.

"We're more excited than ever right now," Savage said. "Sure, we have some hurdles to jump before we can be a contender, but every team currently has a hurdle."

"We learned a valuable lesson last season."

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