The 2004 season for UCI\’s baseball team has been nothing short of a roller coaster.
Halfway through the season, the team was 23-7-1 and was ranked as high as seventh in the nation. The Anteaters would get swept by Long Beach State, Cal State Fullerton and Washington before ending the season a disappointing fourth in the Big West Conference.
Nonetheless, the team received an at-large bit to play in its first postseason in the NCAA tournament as a Division I program and headed into last weekend’s Notre Dame regional in South Bend, Ind., as the No. 2 seed, where they were looking to prove to others that UCI did belong in the tournament.
However, in the double elimination regional tournament against Notre Dame, Arizona and Kent State, UCI lost to Arizona, a team they beat two times earlier in the season, 7-3, on June 4.
In the elimination game against Notre Dame, UCI fell behind 4-0 and fought back only to lose in a 6-5 heartbreaker on June 5 to end the season 34-23-1.
Although the season has ended for this year’s baseball team, they have much to be proud of.
Due to a state budget crisis in the early 1990s, the university cut the baseball program in 1992. Led by former UCI Athletic Director Dan Guerrero, a student referendum revived the program. The team began playing again in 2002.
In only its third year since reinstatement, the Anteaters proved to the baseball community that this team was a legitimate contender in the Big West Conference and in the nation.
Head Coach John Savage tips his hat to the players who took a risk and came to Irvine to play three years ago.
‘Some guys took a lot of courage to come to Irvine, because there were a lot of unknowns,’ Savage said. ‘It’s really a credit to our assistant coaches and to the university that we attracted the Brett Smith’s, the Jordan Szabo’s, the Matt Anderson’s and the Glenn Swanson’s … We told them that they were going to get an opportunity like no other, that they were going to be able to compete on the same field with Long Beach and Fullerton and L.A. and S.C. You’re going to have an opportunity of a lifetime, just like us [coaches] to really learn by fire.’
Savage is also proud that the juniors who formed the first class of players in 2002 would be able to play in the postseason and enjoy the success that they helped bring to Irvine.
‘I don\’t think you can draw it up any better. These guys deserve it,’ Savage said. ‘It\’s very gratifying to those kids that came in three years ago, without any ballpark, and to have a chance to go to Notre Dame, would be a dream come true for a player that\’s going to a program, that they didn’t know what it was going to be three years ago.’
In trying to explain the rapid climb of the team into national prominence, junior pitcher Brett Smith said that credit is due to both the coaches and players.
‘It’s a combination of good, sound recruiting, and great coaching,’ Smith said. ‘I think the players we have in here have given us a chance to win each time we go out there. The coaches have been prepared every step of the way. It\’s what we\’ve expected, it hasn\’t taken any of us by surprise. It\’s what we expected and what we wanted. It\’s made it so much more exciting.’
As for critics who say that UCI did not belong in the postseason, Savage points to how the team played during the season and the quality of competition in the Big West.
‘I think we proved [in] 56 games, that we belong in the tournament. If you look at the strength of schedule, looked at our opponents, who we played, how we played them, I think our team is deserving of a number two seed,’ Savage said.
After the game, Savage was optimistic about the experience gained from this season and is optimistic about next season.
‘I have to give credit to the [UC Irvine] players, that they\’ve made these steps and we\’re looking forward to next year,’ Savage said.
Filed Under: Sports