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Beaver squad has sights on title No. 3

'08 brings new rep, new faces to repeat national champs
by: , WONG

Just before the Christmas holidays, Susan Casey told her husband, 'We haven't had a vacation for two years.'

'Yes, we have,' Pat Casey responded. 'We've spent it in Omaha.'

The visits to Nebraska were business trips - and very successful ones at that, as Casey-coached Oregon State teams won back-to-back College World Series championships.

After Christmas, Pat, Susan and their four children spent eight days in Hawaii. Besides sun and surf, Pat hooked up with former OSU player Jacoby Ellsbury, played golf with Nike President Charlie Denson, took care of a little Nike business and enjoyed a real vacation for a change.

'First time I've been to Maui and Lanai - wow,' Casey says. 'It was great to get away for a few days.

'But the second I got back to Corvallis, I was ready to get going.'

Last week, Casey began preparing his Beavers for the impossible - a third straight national title. Individual workouts began Jan. 7. Practice will start Feb. 1 as the Beavers prepare for their Feb. 22 season opener at Tempe, Ariz., against Vanderbilt - featuring Collegiate Baseball's preseason player of the year, third baseman Pedro Alvarez.

Collegiate Baseball's preseason rankings have Arizona No. 1, Arizona State third, UCLA 18th and Oregon State 19th. This season, OSU also will face San Diego (seventh), Vanderbilt (11th), Long Beach State (17th) and Pepperdine (29th).

'It's by far the most difficult schedule we've ever played,' says Casey, who owns a 440-271 mark as he begins his 14th season at Oregon State. 'The Pac-10 will be the best it has been talentwise since I've been here.'

It's tough on top, too

As he went about recruiting in the offseason, Casey noticed a peculiar phenomenon. Yesterday's underdog has become king of the hill, and the negative recruiting by rivals of the two-time defending champions has gotten under the coach's skin a little.

'You feel like you're forever defending yourself against everybody, whether it's on a recruiting trip or wherever,' Casey says. 'Everybody wants to take a shot at you, and it's getting worse.

'It's interesting to me when (an opposing coach) convinces a recruit not to go to your place because the kid can't make it here, but he can play at their place. You never dreamed that some of the nation's top programs would say, 'Hey, why would you want to go to Oregon State? They have so many people at your position.'

'That's a heck of a compliment, really. But you look for guys who love that challenge and say, 'I want to run with thoroughbreds.' '

Casey believes he has some of them in his 2008 freshman class, by far his most nationally acclaimed group. Among the players who could have gone nearly anywhere are pitchers Josh Osich, Greg Peavey, Kevin Rhoderick and Tanner Robles and infielder Garrett Nash.

Leaders hard to replace

Oregon State must replace the team leaders of 2007, shortstop Darwin Barney and catcher Mitch Canham, along with slugging outfielder Mike Lissman, closer Eddie Kunz and trustworthy arms Joe Paterson and Daniel Turpen.

'Darwin made people better; Mitch made them tougher,' Casey says. 'Darwin was the lover, and Mitch was the stinkin' animal. One guy would cut your throat but put a Band-Aid on it before you bled to death; the other would just walk away.

'We're going to have a tremendous amount of inexperience on the field. It doesn't matter how many guys you lose; it's who you lose. The value of guys like Barney and Canham and Paterson - that's what our club has to replace. Our biggest challenge will be the chemistry part of it.'

'Joey Wong,' Casey says. 'Maybe Braden Wells. Jorge Reyes and Mike Stutes, though it's more difficult for pitchers to be leaders.'

Wong, the former Sprague High star who was a Freshman All-American at second base last season, will move to shortstop.

'Joey is a candidate to become one of the best players in the league,' Casey says. 'He has the savvy, a good bat and glove, the ability to get on base. Whatever the necessary instincts are, he has them.

'He'll be different (at shortstop) than Darwin was. Darwin had big arm strength. What I need from Joey is to become that guy who makes people around him better, just as Darwin did.'

Right-handers Reyes and Stutes should give Oregon State one of the nation's best 1-2 punches in the starting rotation. Reyes, a 6-2, 175-pound sophomore, was MVP at last year's College World Series. Stutes, a 6-1, 185-pound senior, was a ninth-round draft pick by St. Louis but turned down a six-figure signing bonus to return to the Beavers.

Young hurlers hold promise

With a more compacted season - Oregon State started on Jan. 25 in '07 - there will be more midweek games and the need for more starting pitching.

'We have a great top end with Jorge and Mike, but you need five starters now,' Casey says. 'The potential is there to have a really good staff, but the freshmen have to get into some battles and wars.'

Peavey, the 6-2, 185-pound right-hander out of Vancouver, Wash., could wind up as the No. 3 guy. 'No doubt in my mind,' Casey says, 'Greg is going to be one of the best pitchers who's ever pitched here.'

Left-handers Robles, 6-4, 200, from Murray, Utah, and Osich, 6-3, 195, from Boise, Idaho, will get their shot, as will 6-5 sophomore lefty Kraig Sitton from McMinnville and 6-4, 245-pound junior Josh Keller from Cleveland High.

Rhoderick, 6-0, 190 from Scottsdale, Ariz., is the likely closer, but returnees Mark Grbavac (Central Catholic) and Blake Keitzman (Roseburg) are probable in middle relief, though Keitzman could start and Grbavac could close.

Defensive-minded Erik Ammon, a 5-10, 185-pound senior, and 6-3, 200-pound sophomore Ryan Ortiz will share catching duties. Seniors Jordan Lennerton and Lonnie Lechelt are back at first and third base, though Lechelt will have to improve his hitting to earn full-time duty.

Senior Drew George, juniors Jason Ogata (Southridge) and Brett Casey (Crescent Valley) and freshmen Nash and John Tommasini of Roseburg will vie for time at second and third base.

Ogata and Casey figure in a corner outfield mix that includes Wells, Koa Kahalehoe, John Wallace, Rob Folsom and transfers Daniel Robertson (NAIA Concordia College in Irvine, Calif.) and Logan Boyd (College of San Mateo, Calif.) Speedy senior Chris Hopkins will be the center fielder.

Along with Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA, Casey says California and Southern Cal will be in the Pac-10 title hunt.

'There are no gimmes,' he says. 'As young as we are, we'd like to finish somewhere in the top five and get back into the NCAA tournament again.'

It's hard to believe it was only three years ago when Casey got the Beavers into the playoffs for the first time since 1986 and into the College World Series for the first time since 1952. Now they are gunning for their fourth straight CWS appearance.

'When we got to the World Series (in '05), people were so happy,' Casey says. 'They were thinking, 'Well, we'll do it again in 53 more years.' That's the thing I'm most proud of, that we've reloaded and kept this thing going.'

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