by: COURTESY OF OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Michael Conforto is one of the mainstays returning for highly ranked Oregon State.CORVALLIS — Oregon State has never enjoyed the high consensus ranking than it will carry into a 2014 season that begins Feb. 14 against Gonzaga in a tournament at Tempe, Ariz.

The defending Pac-12 champion Beavers enter the campaign ranked as No. 2, 3 or 4 in the various preseason polls.

"That comes directly from finishing fourth at the College World Series last year and having enough guys returning this year," says Pat Casey, beginning his 20th season at the OSU helm. "It's great for our players. They deserve the ranking. But it means nothing as far as winning or losing. I don't spend any time at all worrying about rankings until I'm putting away my uniform for the year."

The Beavers opened practice a week ago with 40 players; Casey says he will cut to the NCAA limit on Wednesday, though grudgingly.

"Don't like the rule," he says. "It's really tough on players you feel could contribute. There are guys who will have to redshirt due to those numbers when they should be on our club. That's out of my hands, but I don't think we should be told how many players to keep.

"I say, if a team wants to carry 38 guys, let 'em. If they want to carry 40, let 'em. Nobody is going to go a whole lot over 35, and you have a 27-man conference roster. But it would be nice to have a senior who is the 36th guy and you feel worthy of being on team. He gets to dress down and maybe play in five or six games. What's wrong with that?"

So far, Casey says, the Beavers "look fine. You work out all fall and then you start and again, and our guys are anxious to get going again. I think we'll be OK. We have enough leadership to bring along the young guys who need to be brought along."

The leadership will come from a lot of places, but especially from junior corner outfielders Michael Conforto and Dylan Davis, senior second baseman Andy Peterson and the weekend starting rotation of senior left-hander Ben Wetzler, sophomore right-hander Andrew Moore and junior left-hander Jace Frye.

Wetzler, Moore and Frye should form one of the better starting trios in the country and arguably the best at OSU in a long line of great ones under Casey.

"People asked me that last year," says Casey, whose Beavers went 52-13 last season, including 24-6 in Pac-12 action. "It's hard to rank them when they haven't pitched this year. When you think about Dallas Buck, Jonah Nickerson and Mike Stutes (in 2006) -- that's pretty good. But this group has had as much success going in as any staff we've ever had."

Like Buck, Nickerson and Stutes, Oregon State's current terrific trio is an in-state production.

Wetzler, a 6-1, 195-pound Clackamas High grad, turned down an offer by Philadelphia after the Phillies chose him in the fifth round of the 2013 draft. The first-team all-Pac 12 pitcher was 10-1 with a 2.25 ERA as a junior. He is 24-6 with 208 strikeouts in his three seasons and needs seven victories and 93 strikeouts this season to become Oregon State's career leader in both categories.

Moore, a 5-11, 185-pound former North Eugene High star, put together the greatest freshman season of any hurler in OSU history last spring. Moore was 14-2 with a 1.79 ERA, striking out 72 and walking 28 in 131 innings. Moore matched the school single-season record for wins and was first-team All-American and Pac-12 freshman of the year.

Frye, a 6-0, 195-pound Southridge High product, finished the season by appearing in relief in six games after recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery. The previous season, Frye was a first-team freshman All-American, going 5-3 with a 2.45 ERA.

The position players will be led by Conforto, who followed up the greatest freshman season by a hitter in school annals with an outstanding sophomore campaign.

In 2012, Conforto hit .349 with 13 home runs and a school-record 76 RBIs in 58 games. Last season, the 6-1, 215-pound Woodinville, Wash., native batted .328 with 11 homers and 47 RBIs in 65 games. The left-handed hitter was Pac-12 player of the year and a first-team All-American and was also named to the All-College World Series team after hitting 7 for 16 with four doubles in four games.

Davis hit a team-high .335 with a Pac-12-best 22 doubles, five homers and 61 RBIs in 63 games last season. The 6-0, 210-pound right-hander -- a prep teammate of Conforto at Redmond (Wash.) High -- was first-team all-Pac-12 and the outstanding player of the Corvallis regional.

In his first season at Oregon State last spring, Peterson hit .333 with 14 stolen bases, making the Corvallis regional all-tournament team.

"The core strength of our club will come from the experienced guys -- Conforto, Davis, Peterson and our veteran pitchers," Casey says. "They need to rub off on our guys who don't have that experience and are trying to find their way through this thing."

Hardest players to replace off last year's club will be catcher Jake Rodriguez and shortstop Tyler Smith, the latter a two-time first-team all-Pac-12 selection.

Leading the way at catcher is Logan Ice, a 5-9, 180-pound freshman out of Puyallup, Wash.

"I like him more than anybody," Casey says. "He doesn't act like a freshman. He controls the game behind the plate. He's a little overmatched offensively right now, but with no apprehension about playing his position."

Another freshman, 5-11, 175-pound Trever Morrison from Bothell, Wash., will be the shortstop.

"Trever is doing a good job defending, he handles the bat pretty well and he can really run," Casey says. "He and Jeff Hendrix are the fastest guys on the team."

Hendrix, a 5-11, 190-pound sophomore from Corvallis who played a bit role as a freshman, is ahead of junior JC transfer Michael Howard in the battle for the center field spot.

Senior Kavin Keyes will play somewhere -- third base, first base, catcher or designated hitter. Senior Jerad Casper is "giving Keyes a run for his money" at third base, Casey says.

Sophomore Gabe Clark is the other candidate at first base.

"Some days he looks like he's turned the corner and figured it out," Casey says. "Other days, he looks like he needs a lot of work."

Howard, a 6-0, 175-pound junior southpaw out of Yavapai JC in Prescott, Ariz., could fill in at the corner outfield spots or at DH.

With mid-week games, Oregon State will need five starting pitchers. Three players are in strong contention for the 4-5 roles -- senior right-hander Scott Schultz, who also turned down a pro contract after being drafted in the 17th round by Miami, and freshmen right-handers Jake Thompson and Kevin Flemer. Thompson, 6-2 and 205 pounds, is out of Siuslaw High; the 6-0, 200-pound Flemer is from El Cerrito, Calif.

The 6-3, 205-pound Schultz (2-1 with a 2.07 ERA and 10 saves last season) and 6-1, 195-pound sophomore left-hander Max Engelbrekt from Seattle (5-1, 1.30, five saves) could share closing duties. Also in the mix for relief duties are senior right-hander Brandon Jackson, junior left-handers Tyler Painton and Zach Reser and freshman right-hander Chandler Eden from Yuba City, Calif.

Davis, whose fastball has been clocked near 100 mph, could also pitch as a starter or in relief.

"But we don't want to take away from what he does offensively," Casey says. "We want for it to be the right timing."

Casey, who coached Oregon State to back-to-back national championships in 2006 and '07, reflects on what has happened with the program with satisfaction.

"Fifteen years ago, we were just trying to establish something here," he says. "Now, we kind of look at No. 2 in the country as no big deal. Those are our expectations. That's pretty cool.

"The reality is, though, you have to go out and play the games. You're a blink away from something happening that creates a problem for you. But I like our group. It feels like we're well-prepared."


• The Beavers will have a double-header scrimmage Saturday at 3 p.m. at Goss Stadium.

• Casey continues to fund-raise for the $4 million expansion project that will start immediately after the 2014 season. It features renovations along the third-base side that include a new locker room, coaching office, training room, gathering room for family pre- and post-game and a barbecue area, along with a new turf. There will also be improvements to concessions and seating that will put Goss in better position to host high school all-star games, high school and American Legion state tournaments and even concerts, Casey says. "Every team in our conference has upgraded its stadium in the last three to four years," he says. "We're going to get ours done, too, and it's going to be first-class. Our players deserve it. Our fans deserve it, too."

• The Beavers' home opener is Feb. 28 against Wright State, the first in a four-game series that starts a 10-game home stand and includes a March 11 date vs. Ohio State. The Pac-12 opener is March 14 at Utah.

Outfielder Joey Jansen will redshirt after undergoing shoulder surgery. Another redshirt is catcher Dane Lund, who must sit out the year after a transfer from San Jose State. Lund will be a senior in 2015.

• A 6-4, 230-pound freshman right-hander, Reza Aleaziz, the Metro League player out of the year out of Southridge High, is a walk-on. "He has a chance to be good down the road," Casey says.

• Football receiver Hunter Jarmon is out for baseball as an outfielder. "He's a real good athlete with some upside," Casey says.

• Casey's career record is 670-389 at Oregon State, 841-502 including six seasons at George Fox. He will move into the top 10 among Pac-12 coaches with 19 more victories.

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