College : : Story
Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Time for the Trojans?

Kendall Rogers        
ALSO SEE: PG College Top 25 | Travis Radke profileWeekly national column

LOS ANGELES — USC alum and head coach Dan Hubbs is living his personal dream, and he just might be in the process of creating some special memories with the Trojans.

As Hubbs will tell you, there’s certainly a lot of season left, but there are plenty of reasons why the Trojans should feel confident after a 3-0 weekend against Northwestern, and a dominant midweek performance against No. 2 Cal State Fullerton.

At least for the time being, the feeling around the USC campus seems much different than past seasons. Hubbs had a chance to show me around around the athletic facilities at USC, and several administrators approached him with a quick, succinct, “great weekend coach, we’re excited about the season, and go get’em.” Perhaps that’s standard procedure everywhere, but there seems to be a positive vibe about this program right now, from administrators, to the coaching staff, and of course, very visible through the players.

Maybe, just maybe, USC is beginning to get its bearings straight.

Nigel Nootbaar is one of several talented arms USC can rely on this season. (USC photo)
“No doubt we’re much better over last season. I was saying a few days ago, one of the benefits of having 17 freshmen last season, is now we have 17 sophomores,” Hubbs said. “That gives us some experience, and we know those guys are talented and capable.

“With everything equal, I think last year’s team would be 2-2 at this point, not 4-0.”

Through the first four games, the Trojans already have found a variety of ways to win. In the season opener against Northwestern, the Trojans needed a strong bullpen performance from left-handed specialist Sean Adler to finish off an 11-inning thriller, while in Game Two, relievers Jeff Paschke and Nigel Nootbaar combined for eight innings of shutout baseball to help the cardinal and gold capture a 15-inning win over the Wildcats. USC won the series finale against Northwestern with ease, thanks to a strong showing from the offense, but again on Tuesday, the Trojans needed the bullpen to rise to the occasion against the second-ranked Titans.

And once again, this unit, which struggled immensely last season, shined. Adler used an 85-87 mph fastball and mid-70s slurve to silence the Titans bats, striking out five in three shutout frames, while senior pitcher James Guillen threw two shutout frames to finish the contest.

The top four hitters in Fullerton’s lineup went a combined 2-for-13 against USC’s staff.

“We’re going to need those type of performances from those guys throughout the season,” Hubbs said. “We feel like we’re much deeper on the mound than we’ve been in several years, and these games kind of proved that. The bullpen has been fantastic. I think we’ve thrown about 20 innings out of the bullpen, and this unit has given up one run. That’s pretty good.”

While the pitching staff’s improvements have caught the most attention through the first week, the Trojans also seem to be more put together from an offensive standpoint.

USC is hitting .309 as a team in the early going, and that’s even without its top three hitters from last season. Imposing sophomore Vahn Bozoian is off to a sizzling start, hitting a home run against Northwestern over the weekend, but making the strongest statement on Tuesday with a towering home run to left field on an 89 mph fastball from former first round pick and Cal State Fullerton right-hander Phil Bickford.

Jake Hernandez and AJ Ramirez are each hitting well over .400, while the same can be said for catcher Garrett Stubbs, who had two hits against the Titans, and is hitting .444. The Trojans also are excited about impressive freshman Jeremy Martinez and shortstop Frankie Rios. Martinez is hitting .294 through the first week, while Rios, though he’s only hitting .188, has provided a spark at times — important because the Trojans are without shortstop Blake Lacey because of an injury.

“The bats have really woken up the past couple of days. It’s nice to see guys like Vahn [Bozoian] do what they’re doing. He’s one guy capable of driving the ball pretty good, even with these bats,” Hubbs said. “What I take from this team right now is that we’re finding different ways to win. We blew the lead in the ninth inning on Friday, and we win in 11. We had to throw up a bunch of zeroes out of the bullpen on Saturday to win, and then the bats come alive. We’re pretty much a balanced attack right now.

“With that said, there are always things that could improve,” he continued. “For instance, we put some runners in scoring position tonight [against Fullerton] and didn’t get them home. Little things like that will be key as we move forward this spring.”

Though the Trojans are considered a traditional power, Hubbs and his club are taking absolutely nothing for granted. USC, despite winning the most national titles in NCAA history, hasn’t reached the NCAA postseason since 2005. Adding to that, the Trojans began the 2012 season with a 7-0 record, only to finish the year with a 23-32 overall mark.

Significant progress was seen the first week of the season, and that’s a step forward for a program that has been riddled with inefficiency for years.

Hubbs hopes the most special memories lie ahead.
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