Jan. 7, 2003
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - Omaha, the stampede is coming.
Santa Clara University hasn't appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 1997. But with 2nd year head coach Mark O'Brien at the helm, the Broncos have new vision, new hopes, and new intensity.
When Mark O'Brien took over the reins as head coach of Santa Clara's baseball program following the 2001 season, he never hesitated to leave his mark on the 121-year old program. After being skipper for only a month, O'Brien recruited then junior infielder A.J. LaBarbera, a transfer from Long Beach State. LaBarbera went on to start all 55 games in 2002, posting a .342 batting average, the second best on the team. More importantly, LaBarbera helped fill the infield gap resulting from shortstop Mike Theoharis' 2001 graduation. He became a solid anchor at second base, maintaining a .938 fielding percentage.
Though O'Brien's 2002 squad finished humbly below the .500 mark, the Broncos expect a sharp turn-around in 2003, due to O'Brien's relentless work ethic and, above all, his remarkable recruiting, which continues to turn heads. After all, if O'Brien can attract a key player like LaBarbera within a month, imagine what he could do with a whole year.
He certainly didn't disappoint. According to Baseball America, O'Brien brings the nation's 17th best recruiting class to the Mission Campus for the 2003 season. The list includes four players rated among the top-200 prospects by Team One Baseball, and seven players among the top 100 in California list compiled by Baseball America.
"We're going to throw them into the fire," O'Brien joked regarding the talented incoming freshmen. "They're going to be in there. If they keep it simple and perform to their abilities and don't try to do anything they can't do, they'll be fine. I expect a lot out of them."
O'Brien particularly sees the potential of freshmen outfielder Jason Matteucci and pitcher Pat Overholt. "He's an outfielder who is unbelievably athletic," O'Brien said about Matteucci. "He catches every fly ball and has swung the bat very, very well. Pat Overholt is going to get the baseball in the late innings and has a chance to be a dominating guy. Matteucci and Overholt will have chances to be really special down the road."
But perhaps O'Brien's biggest acquirement is pitcher Scott Shapiro, a sophomore transfer from Vanderbilt. During Shapiro's freshman year, he made 14 pitching appearances, registering a 2-1 record and striking out 13 batters in 19 innings. Shapiro also made 31 appearances as a designated hitter, posting a .340 average and accumulating 5 home runs and 30 RBI.
In high school, Shapiro was lights out. He had an 8-3 record with a 1.80 ERA for St. Augustine High School in Oceanside, California. On top of that, he struck out a stunning 130 batters in 75 innings of work. Upon graduating high school, Shapiro was drafted by the San Diego Padres; however, he opted to pursue his baseball career at the collegiate level. O'Brien expects Shapiro to be drafted within the first five rounds of the major league draft following his Santa Clara graduation.
Standing at 6'6 and 230 lbs., Shapiro is an "unusual talent," according to O'Brien. "He throws the ball, on a consistent basis, in the low to mid 90's," O'Brien observed. "That's somewhat abnormal for a college pitcher."
Abnormal or not, Shapiro will definitely play a key role in the Broncos' success in 2003. "Let me put it this way," O'Brien stated earnestly. "If Scott Shapiro is very successful this year, our team will be very, very successful." O'Brien's has advised the young hurler "to work as hard as he possibly can. If he can work as hard as he possibly can, his natural ability is going to take over. He just needs to believe in his ability, to go out and perform, and to keep things very simple."
Although their pitching staff seems flawless, the Broncos are left with a defensive gap at shortstop following infielder Pat Peavey's 2002 graduation. "We have some very, very talented freshman infielders: Mike Lange, Mike Thompson, Dave Hoffmire, Eric Newton," O'Brien assuredly stated. "Those guys are really talented, but they're very young: it's a two-way street. But I think they're talented enough to get by and they're confident in their ability to succeed. We'll fill the holes with those guys and see where that takes us."
"Once we take care of our job in the conference, then we can get to where we really want to be, and that's the postseason."
Head Coach Mark O'Brien
But conference play will determine the Broncos' success. "Our first responsibility is to take care of business in conference," O'Brien said. "Once we take care of our job in the conference, then we can get to where we really want to be, and that's the postseason."
But to do that, the Broncos need to overcome some promising teams in the West Coast Conference, particularly Pepperdine. "They've proven they're the best," O'Brien said of Pepperdine. "Until anyone proves them wrong, they deserve that recognition. It's going to be a generally more challenging conference this year than it was last year."
Aside from conference play, the Broncos will square off with San Jose State in a three game series, fueled by the newly instituted Santa Clara-San Jose State Rivalry Series. Although the Broncos have already mathematically captured the official Rivalry Series, Mark O'Brien, a San Jose State alum, brings his own brand of rivalry to the diamond. "Let's not kid around," O'Brien stated. "I went to San Jose State, so whenever we play them that's going to be a special deal, that's going to be a special game. But the bottom line is, the players play the game and they're going to take care of the wins and losses anyways. But there is a little added incentive when we play [San Jose State]."
O'Brien's formula for success is simple and consistent. "Basically I just go out with a lot of energy and a lot of enthusiasm towards the vision of what I want to do at Santa Clara University," O'Brien commented. "I didn't want to come to Santa Clara University to win 20 or 30 games and have everybody say, 'Great season. You won more than you lost.' We're trying to win big. I don't want that to come off as an arrogant statement, but why else would you take the job? So you can just be average? No, you take the job so you can go to the College World Series. That's what you want to do; and if you didn't want to do that, you're in the wrong profession."
O'Brien sells this hopeful vision to prospective recruits. "I tell them they have a chance to be a part of something," O'Brien stated sincerely. "As opposed to a place that has already gone to the College World Series, you can for the rest of your life say, I was the one who brought Santa Clara to the College World Series."
Whether it's the vision or the salesman that sells, players are sold on Santa Clara. O'Brien's 2004 recruiting class should find itself alongside the nation's top programs. Among the recruits who have already signed national letters of intent for Santa Clara University is pitcher Jared Hughes, who comes from Santa Margarita High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, and was ranked as the nation's third best overall prospect as well as the nation's top pitching prospect by Baseball America. The prestigious 2002 Area Codes National Baseball Tournament ranked Hughes as the nation's second best overall prospect.
If O'Brien's knack for recruiting and his tireless determination and concentration are any indications, Omaha is just a matter of time - and most likely sooner than later. "Omaha is a magical, magical place," O'Brien said with awe. "I don't want to go there as a spectator; I want to be in between the ropes, as they say. I've been there three times and have coached some national championship games, and it's the best place I've ever been." O'Brien paused and then continued with incited passion and intensity in his voice. "That's where everybody wants Santa Clara baseball to go, and no one wants that more than I do. So, that's what we hope to do."