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By Jordan Medina

After the UC Irvine baseball team made a run to the College World Series in 2014, the team was unable to return to the postseason despite garnering a 15 game win streak in 2015. Now, the ‘Eaters enter this season hungry and motivated to return to the NCAA tournament.

“We got a lot of young guys (…) and we have a lot of seniors that have to try and mold them into a competitor,” said senior infielder Mikey Duarte. “[Our goal] is to play in the College World Series.”

Duarte, an All-Big West first team member last season and a semifinalist for the Brooks Wallace award, given to the best shortstop in the country, isn’t alone in that sentiment either.

“There is a whole group of players that have played a lot and it’s reasonable to expect that this is their time,” said seventh year head coach Mike Gillespie.

Coming off a Big West Freshman of the Year honor last season, sophomore outfielder Keston Hiura has already received a first-team preseason All-American nod from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA)
Coming off a Big West Freshman of the Year honor last season, sophomore outfielder Keston Hiura has already received a first-team preseason All-American nod from the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association (NCBWA)

Duarte returns after leading the team in batting average, runs and hits and is part of an experienced group that returns fourteen position players from last season.

“Virtually every position will have a player that played it a substantial amount in the last year or the last two years, or even in a couple cases the last three years,” Gillespie said.

The team also returns sophomore outfielder Keston Hiura, the leading RBI (Runs batted in) man from last season and the returning Big West Freshman Player of the Year.

“Keston Hiura is a special player,” coach Gillespie said. “He can play for anybody in the country.”

Hiura has garnered three preseason All-America nods this season and looks to continue his previous success this year.

“I’m grateful for the awards I’ve received (…) but the past doesn’t matter anymore. It’s what you do now that continues to define who you are,” Hiura said.

While the team has a lot of firepower at the plate and is returning a lot of its offensive production, questions hover over the team’s pitching .

“There’s ability…and we think that there will be some guys that step up and get this thing resolved, but it is the biggest “if” in the whole operation,” Gillespie said.

The ‘Eater staff returns less than half of their pitchers from last year and looks to implement eight new pitchers into their rotation and bullpen. Senior starting pitcher Elliott Surrey returns as the only pitcher on the staff that started more than six games last season.

“Surrey has been a major performer and contributor for two years…and he is a consistent, proven winner,” Gillespie said.

Besides Surrey, the team also returns sophomore pitchers Cameron Bishop, Alonzo Garcia and Shaun Vetrovec, as well as junior pitcher Sean Sparling, who all appeared in at least ten games  in last year’s campaign.

Even with these question marks, the ’Eaters have reason to believe that they’ll do well this year. The team was picked to finish second in the conference in the Big West coaches’ preseason poll, but the team thinks that they can do better as they seek their first conference title since 2009.

After the UC Irvine baseball team made a run to the College World Series in 2014, the team was unable to return to the postseason despite garnering a 15 game win streak in 2015. Now, the ‘Eaters enter this season hungry and motivated to return to the NCAA tournament.

“We got a lot of young guys (…) and we have a lot of seniors that have to try and mold them into a competitor,” said senior infielder Mikey Duarte. “[Our goal] is to play in the College World Series.”

Duarte, an All-Big West first team member last season and a semifinalist for the Brooks Wallace award, given to the best shortstop in the country, isn’t alone in that sentiment either.

“There is a whole group of players that have played a lot and it’s reasonable to expect that this is their time,” said seventh year head coach Mike Gillespie.

Duarte returns after leading the team in batting average, runs and hits and is part of an experienced group that returns fourteen position players from last season.

“Virtually every position will have a player that played it a substantial amount in the last year or the last two years, or even in a couple cases the last three years,” Gillespie said.

The team also returns sophomore outfielder Keston Hiura, the leading RBI (Runs batted in) man from last season and the returning Big West Freshman Player of the Year.

“Keston Hiura is a special player,” coach Gillespie said. “He can play for anybody in the country.”

Hiura has garnered three preseason All-America nods this season and looks to continue his previous success this year.

“I’m grateful for the awards I’ve received (…) but the past doesn’t matter anymore. It’s what you do now that continues to define who you are,” Hiura said.

While the team has a lot of firepower at the plate and is returning a lot of its offensive production, questions hover over the team’s pitching .

“There’s ability…and we think that there will be some guys that step up and get this thing resolved, but it is the biggest “if” in the whole operation,” Gillespie said.

The ‘Eater staff returns less than half of their pitchers from last year and looks to implement eight new pitchers into their rotation and bullpen. Senior starting pitcher Elliott Surrey returns as the only pitcher on the staff that started more than six games last season.

“Surrey has been a major performer and contributor for two years…and he is a consistent, proven winner,” Gillespie said.

Besides Surrey, the team also returns sophomore pitchers Cameron Bishop, Alonzo Garcia and Shaun Vetrovec, as well as junior pitcher Sean Sparling, who all appeared in at least ten games  in last year’s campaign.

Even with these question marks, the ’Eaters have reason to believe that they’ll do well this year. The team was picked to finish second in the conference in the Big West coaches’ preseason poll, but the team thinks that they can do better as they seek their first conference title since 2009.

“A lot of people don’t think that we’ll be successful this year or they don’t think we have what it takes to win the conference, so I think that’s a big chip on our shoulder that we want to overcome,” Hiura said. “We belong here and we have a great chance of going far and making it to Omaha.”

“There’s always going to be doubters,” Duarte said. “I love the doubters because that fuels me. Because that fuels us.”

This year, the schedule is full of challenges and intriguing matchups for the ‘Eaters. The team plays seven teams that made the NCAA tournament last season in Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State Fullerton, UC Santa Barbara, San Diego State, USC, UCLA and Maryland.

UCI takes on three teams ranked in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll — number nine UCLA, number sixteen Cal State Fullerton and number twenty USC.

The ‘Eaters also play Nevada, who won the Mountain West regular season title, but lost in their conference tournament and missed out on the NCAA tournament.

Another highlight of the schedule is the ‘Eaters’ trip to Tennessee. It is the only trip out of state for the team as they face an SEC school in the Volunteers. While Tennessee hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2005, the main storyline entering that matchup is the fact that their coach, Dave Serrano, who formerly coached UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.

The Big West Conference is consistently one of the better baseball conferences in the country, routinely sending multiple teams to the postseason each year, and this year seems to be no different.

“This conference is a very good baseball conference,” coach Gillespie said. “There’s no gimmies and that makes it fun.”

Cal State Fullerton, who made the College World Series last year, is tabbed to win the conference, while Long Beach State returns the Big West Freshman Pitcher of the Year from last year, Chris Mathewson, and looks to challenge for the Big West title. UC Santa Barbara, who hosted a regional last year and has made the tournament two of the last three years, also looks to continue their rise as a program.

UCI begins their season in the Bay Area on February 19 with a four game series against San Jose State before returning to Anteater Ballpark for their home opener against San Diego State on February 23. UC Irvine’s first home series will be a three game series against Nevada that starts February 26.

“A lot of people don’t think that we’ll be successful this year or they don’t think we have what it takes to win the conference, so I think that’s a big chip on our shoulder that we want to overcome,” Hiura said. “We belong here and we have a great chance of going far and making it to Omaha.”

“There’s always going to be doubters,” Duarte said. “I love the doubters because that fuels me. Because that fuels us.”

This year, the schedule is full of challenges and intriguing matchups for the ‘Eaters. The team plays seven teams that made the NCAA tournament last season in Cal State Bakersfield, Cal State Fullerton, UC Santa Barbara, San Diego State, USC, UCLA and Maryland.

UCI takes on three teams ranked in the preseason USA Today Coaches Poll — number nine UCLA, number sixteen Cal State Fullerton and number twenty USC.

The ‘Eaters also play Nevada, who won the Mountain West regular season title, but lost in their conference tournament and missed out on the NCAA tournament.

Another highlight of the schedule is the ‘Eaters’ trip to Tennessee. It is the only trip out of state for the team as they face an SEC school in the Volunteers. While Tennessee hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2005, the main storyline entering that matchup is the fact that their coach, Dave Serrano, who formerly coached UC Irvine and Cal State Fullerton.

The Big West Conference is consistently one of the better baseball conferences in the country, routinely sending multiple teams to the postseason each year, and this year seems to be no different.

“This conference is a very good baseball conference,” coach Gillespie said. “There’s no gimmies and that makes it fun.”

Cal State Fullerton, who made the College World Series last year, is tabbed to win the conference, while Long Beach State returns the Big West Freshman Pitcher of the Year from last year, Chris Mathewson, and looks to challenge for the Big West title. UC Santa Barbara, who hosted a regional last year and has made the tournament two of the last three years, also looks to continue their rise as a program.

UCI begins their season in the Bay Area on February 19 with a four game series against San Jose State before returning to Anteater Ballpark for their home opener against San Diego State on February 23. UC Irvine’s first home series will be a three game series against Nevada that starts February 26.

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