OMAHA -- Believe it or not, UCLA once was considered a non-factor in the college baseball landscape in Southern California, and certainly nationally speaking as an overall program.
USC remains the national leader in national titles with 12 in program history, while Cal State Fullerton has been outstanding for four decades, earning four national titles, most recently in 1995 and another under the direction of George Horton, who's now at Oregon, in 2004.
But UCLA? During that time span, the Bruins had much trouble gaining traction against those two stalwarts, among others. Sure, the Bruins reached the College World Series in 1997, but that, of course, was the first time since '69 the program had accomplished the feat. Though long-time coach Gary Adams did a wonderful job of preparing his players for the next level, the Bruins didn't make many statements on the national stage as a program.
Astonishing to say the least, but something many college baseball fans, perhaps from Mississippi State, may not understand, the Bruins are far from a perennial power. Only recently, with coach John Savage, and other assistants such as Steve Pearse (now at Reedley College), Rick Vanderhook (now at Cal State Fullerton), and now TJ Bruce and Rex Peters, have the Bruins evolved from somewhat an afterthought in some California circles to the premier program in the Golden State.
"The difference that John has done, he's got more pitchers than they used to get. They used to get a pitcher, and four or five stud hitters," one Southern California head coach said. "They've figured out how to win. Winning is something that you need to learn how to do, and he's taught them how to do it.
"I'd say it's comparable to what North Carolina coach Mike Fox has done with his program," he continued. "There was a time when UNC had pretty good teams, but didn't have a lot to show for it in the postseason. But now, North Carolina and South Carolina are the most consistent teams on the East Coast, bar none, zero question about it. He and John are very similar in that regard."
Not too long ago, even early in John Savage's tenure as head coach, there were plenty of questions raised about the direction of the UCLA program. Savage had an impressive couple of seasons at UC Irvine before guiding the Bruins to a 15-41 mark in his first season in 2005. But after that inaugural campaign, the Bruins quickly began to show vast improvements across the board, improving 18 wins in 2006 before tallying 33 wins in both '07 and '08.
But even with those improvements there was always that Cal State Fullerton problem, the program the Bruins could never seem to surpass. Savage's club in 2007 was swept by the Titans in the Fullerton Super Regional, before bowing out in '08 in NCAA Regional play to, you guessed it, Cal State Fullerton.
At that point, almost everyone in Southern California wondered if the Bruins had exactly what it took to best the Titans and advance to the College World Series. After all, it was very much expected the NCAA Selection Committee wasn't going to do the Bruins any favors, and the split them up with the Titans come NCAA postseason play.
Though the Bruins missed the NCAA postseason in 2009 with a 27-29 overall record, the tide once again turned their direction in 2010 with a starting rotation, a magnificent one, that included Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer, both big leaguers, and left-handed pitcher Rob Rasmussen. That team put together an impressive regular season campaign and was a national seed.
Again, Cal State Fullerton stood in the way. The Titans won their NCAA Regional, and then Dave Serrano's club rolled into Jackie Robinson Stadium with plenty of confidence. Who could blame them? For all intents and purposes, up until that point, the Titans had owned the Bruins, keeping Savage's program from reaching the mecca of college baseball -- the College World Series.
The Titans won the series opener of the Los Angeles Super Regional, but UCLA surprised many on the national stage by winning Game 2 and crushing the Titans, 8-1, in the series finale to advance to the CWS. The Bruins finally had mastered the Titans, and wound up reaching the CWS Championship Series, where Gerrit Cole and Inc., dropped a hard-fought series to South Carolina.
Reaching the CWS and the national title series in 2010 will forever be a historic moment in UCLA program history, but for Savage's tenure at the university, that NCAA Super Regional series win over the Titans was the tide turner. It was the ultimate statement that Fullerton finally had an equal competitor.
Equality was all the Bruins were striving for back in 2010, but now the Titans, oddly enough, are now chasing UCLA, which has become quite the national power over the past couple of seasons.
In addition to playing for the national title in '10, the Bruins hosted another NCAA Regional in 2011 and got back to Omaha last season with a 47-14 overall record, going 1-2 in the CWS.
Now, for the third time in four seasons the Bruins have reached the CWS, beating old school nemesis Cal State Fullerton along the way in NCAA Super Regional action. And more importantly, for the second time in four seasons, John Savage's UCLA program is playing for a national title.
UCLA was doubted both locally and on the national stage for years before Savaged showed up in Westwood, and even for some after he showed up.
But now, as has been the case for a couple of seasons now, UCLA is the top dog in California.
All the Bruins need now is the program's first national title.