Casey lifts program to lofty heights

OSU baseball faces transition year as it aims to stay dominant

OMAHA, Neb. - It wasn't long ago that the odds of Oregon State just being at the College World Series seemed about like those of a sumo wrestler riding Barbaro to the Triple Crown.

In 1999, when Oregon State, Washington and Washington State merged with the southern powers to form a true Pacific-10 Conference, Stanford coach Mark Marquess warned, 'You guys don't know what you're in for.' Seven years later, as the Beavers outscored Stanford 35-4 in five games during the '06 season, Marquess proved unintentionally prophetic.

Few would have dreamed that Oregon State could secure back-to-back Pac-10 titles and be recognized as one of the premier programs in the country.

'The best thing that could have happened to us,' coach Pat Casey says, 'was to win the conference championship a second time so people couldn't say, 'They just ran into a good year.' People were saying, 'We'll see what happens when they are picked to win the conference and have to beat all those teams again.' Well, we did it.'

It didn't happen overnight. Oregon State took its lumps, finishing no higher than sixth its first six seasons in a combined Pac-10 before its breakthrough year in '05.

'Trust me, there was nobody more miserable in the first couple of years than I was, going into venues and getting the snot kicked out of us,' Casey says. 'And having to look at your players and say, 'We're good enough to do this.' '

Casey knew if his ultimate goal - the College World Series - was to be reached, a combined Pac-10 was the answer. His 1998 team had swept three games from both Arizona and UCLA, won at Southern Cal and finished 35-14 but was denied a regional bid. 'The biggest travesty ever,' Casey says. 'I knew right then if we didn't become a full conference, nobody would give us the opportunity to earn respect.'

For a while, Casey looked at his southern Pac-10 rivals and figured he didn't have a player who could make their starting lineups. Gradually, that changed. He began to recruit better talent, and he worked hard to develop marginal players - most of them regional - into national-caliber talents and pro prospects. Nine Beavers were taken in the recent major league draft, and not many of them were regarded as blue-chippers out of high school.

'You want to get to the point where people say, 'They develop players,' ' Casey says. 'It's the thing you want people to see about our program.'

Team's rise parallels coach's

Casey's reputation has grown with that of his program. A year ago, Texas A and M and Oklahoma came to him with lucrative offers. Last week, Louisiana State sent out feelers to see if Casey would be interested in replacing Smoke Laval, who resigned after the Tigers went 35-24 but only 13-17 in Southeast Conference play this spring.

Beyond question, Casey's knowledge of the game and competitiveness have put a stamp on the OSU program.

'Coach is intense,' junior left fielder Cole Gillespie says. 'He wants to win more than anyone I've ever played for. He gets ingrained into the players' heads from Day One that losing is not acceptable.'

'He gets on you,' junior center fielder Tyler Graham says, 'but through the process of a season, he molds you into a player who can fight through adversity. He has an ability to make you want something more than anybody else, and be tough and fight through things. That's one of his best qualities.'

2007: a whole new ballgame

Casey will face a major challenge with next year's team. He loses his top two starting pitchers, Dallas Buck and Jonah Nickerson, along with one of the nation's top closers in Kevin Gunderson. Also gone will be Gillespie, the Pac-10 player of the year; second baseman Chris Kunda, the Pac-10 defensive player of the year; the speedy, versatile Graham, slugging first baseman Bill Rowe and sure-handed third baseman Shea McFeely.

'We understand the team is going to be completely different next season,' says Casey, who is 385-252 in his 12 years at OSU. 'A lot of coaches use that as an excuse to call it a rebuilding year. I don't think it'll be as much a rebuilding year as a transition year. It's exciting to be in a position where we're going to be creating a new era.'

Returning are catcher Mitch Canham, All-Pac-10 shortstop Darwin Barney and part-time starters John Wallace and Scott Santschi in the outfield, along with No. 3 starting pitcher Mike Stutes and middle reliever Eddie Kunz, who will become the closer.

Casey and his staff are looking for an infielder and an outfielder who can play right away. The Beavers have had some success with late signees, including pitcher Anton Maxwell two years ago.

A percentage of signees is almost always lost to pro ranks, and two of them from this year's crop have signed - infielder Taylor Green from Victoria, British Columbia, and first baseman Steve Marquardt from Columbia Basin (Wash.) College. Even so, the recruiting class brings immediate talent.

Joey Wong from Sprague High will be given an opportunity to start at second base. Drew George, from Lebanon by way of Lower Columbia (Wash.) College, could become the starting third baseman. Jordan Lennerton from El Paso (Texas) Community College might battle redshirt freshman Bret Bochler of Redmond at first base. Braden Wells from Dixie State College of Utah and incoming freshman Scotty Burke of Las Vegas could battle in center field.

Stutes will be the No. 1 starter. Maxwell, the left-hander who went 11-1 in 2005 but was edged out of the rotation by Stutes this spring, was suspended for a team rules violation during the regionals and did not make the trip to Omaha. He probably will return next season and is expected to vie for a starting nod along with holdovers Daniel Turpen, Joe Paterson and Mark Grbavac and incoming freshman Blake Keitzman of Roseburg.

'We really like Keitzman,' Casey says. 'He reminds me a lot of Gunderson coming out of high school - a left-hander who isn't afraid to pitch.'

Casey has big plans. Before next season, there is installation of a FieldTurf artificial surface over the entire infield except the pitcher's mound and home plate, a state-of-the-art scoreboard with replay screen and expansion of Goss Stadium capacity to about 3,500 in permanent seating.

'The project has been approved, but we're about $500,000 short in our fundraising drive to get all three things done,' Casey says. 'We want to be able to attract teams such as Nebraska and North Carolina State for home-and-home series. Completion of the project will ensure a schedule that will help us in RPI rankings in the future.'

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