October 9, 1998
by Jeff Bechthold
After losing several of its best players ever to the pro ranks, the 1999 season was going to bring a lot of changes for the Husky baseball team no matter what.
But with the re-unification of the Pacific-10 Conference finally a reality, the coming spring will present a long list of challenges to the two-time defending Pac-10 champions.
Since 1970, the Pac-10 has operated as two divisions in baseball, with a myriad of teams from outside of the traditional conference taking part in the Northern Division along with Washington, Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State.
In recent years, there has been a clamor in the North for the two divisions to re-connect. Finally, with Northern Division participants Portland and Gonzaga moving back to the West Coast Conference three years ago, Oregon having dropped baseball many years ago and Portland State following suit by closing down its program after last season, the Northern Division was left with only three teams, meaning a re-unification of the two divisions was a necessity.
Next spring, the Pac-10 will exist as one baseball conference for the first time in nearly 30 years. The change will have a profound effect the schedule, game strategy, recruiting and the fans.
"You go from playing in the North, where weve dominated in recent years, to playing in one of the nations top two conferences," seventh-year head coach Ken Knutson says. "Were going from a small, mid-level conference to the top."
In the late 1960s, when the Pac-8 played as one, the Southern teams dominated the teams from the North. Thanks to scholarship restrictions and season limits, things have changed. In recent North-South matchups, the Northern teams have held their own, best illustrated by the fact that Washington has beaten highly-ranked Stanford the last two years in the Pac-10 Championship Series, a three-game set between the winners of the two divisions. The Huskies also took two of three from both California and College World Series runner-up Arizona State last year in non-conference series.
Be that as it may, there may still be the perception that the UW, WSU and OSU will be in over their heads in the new Pac-10. "Before the rule changes, that may have been right," Knutson says. "But the teams from the North have made a good showing recently."
"I still dont think we have the full respect of the teams from the South," says junior first baseman Ed Erickson, a veteran of two conference champion teams. "In 1997, we won the Pac-10, and we were still the lowest seeded team of the five Pac-10 teams in the NCAA Tournament. Competing with them all season should get us the respect we deserve, good or bad."
"The teams in the North have plenty of respect for us," says senior catcher Pete Orgill. "As a far as the teams in the South go, though, they may think weve been a fluke. To win the all-out Pac-10 championship this year would really put an exclamation point on what weve done the last two years."
The raised level of play should pay off in many ways. First, the Huskies will play more home games than ever against big-name, highly-ranked competition. With that, the strength of schedule will rise dramatically, meaning that a fifth or even sixth-place finish in the nine-team Pac-10 may be enough to earn a spot in the newly-expanded 64-team NCAA field.
"I think well have five or six teams make it consistenly," says Knutson, who has taken the Huskies to the NCAA tournament three times in six seasons. "It may even be seven some years. Its like the Big 12 or the ACC in basketball where they get more than half of their teams into the tournament."
Washingtons success will likely depend on its deep pitching staff, a nice thing to have in the pitching-rich Pac-10. With the loss of Chris Magruder, Kevin Miller and Ryan Lentz from the batting order, the inexperienced hitters will have to raise their level quickly to compete against the likes of USC and Stanford.
"The returning players have got to realize the challenge," Knutson says. "Its going to be a real fight."
"Its going to be tough to win the whole thing," says Orgill, "but thats fine. Weve proved that we can play with anyone in the nation. This will just give us more chances to prove it."