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Casey, Pac-12 champion Beavers must bounce back

CORVALLIS — In the weeks since Cal Irvine eliminated Oregon State in the Corvallis regional, Pat Casey has fought a wave of mixed emotions, as have his players.

The nation's No. 1 seed going into the NCAA Tournament expected nothing less than a return trip to the College World Series.

"The sad thing is, as you walk away from the season, you're trying to get kids to get their heads up," said Casey, who completed his 20th year as OSU's head coach. "They were Pac-12 champions, but they were more disappointed in not advancing to the World Series than they were excited about winning a league championship.

"Part of that is awesome, because it tells you what expectations for our program are. Part of it is sad, because of what the guys accomplished.

"I would be disappointed if we weren't down about losing. Part of me has to get out of my own self-pity and balance that out with the fact that we just won back-to-back outright Pac-12 championships and 47 conference games in those two seasons. The kids walked away down, when they should be thinking they're going to have a championship ring hanging on their finger the rest of their lives."

Oregon State was 45-14 overall and 23-7 in Pac-12 play in 2014. It was the Beavers' seventh 40-win season over the past decade.

There were several reasons for OSU's failure to survive the Corvallis regional, but none bigger than the late-season swoon by Michael Conforto, who won his second consecutive Pac-12 player of the year award and was a consensus first-team All-American. The junior left fielder, chosen by the New York Mets with the 10th pick in the major league draft, batted better than .400 with 55 RBIs in the Beavers' first 47 games. Over the final dozen contests, Conforto was 6 for 40 with one RBI, including 2 for 16 in the regional.

"Michael went through one slump in his career, and it happened to be the last 12 games of the year," Casey laments. "That affects the guys in front of him; it affects the guys behind him."

Casey isn't blaming Conforto, of course, for the Beavers' failure to get back to Omaha. He considers the Woodinville, Wash., native alongside Jacoby Ellsbury as the greatest players he has coached in his two decades in Corvallis. Casey predicts Conforto will become an All-Star some day at the major-league level.

Conforto hasn't yet signed with the Mets, though a report -- one he denied -- said he has signed for a bonus of nearly $3 million. "I expect Michael to return to Oregon State next year," Casey deadpans, knowing full well Conforto has played his final game with the Beavers.

That's true for several other players who comprised the bulk of leadership and production for the 2014 Beavers, including All-America pitchers Ben Wetzler and Jace Fry, who have already signed pro contracts, along with pitcher Scott Schultz and second baseman Andy Peterson. Senior utility man Kavin Keyes, drafted by Seattle, is also gone.

All-Pac-12 right fielder Dylan Davis, taken in the third round by San Francisco, is as yet unsigned. He is represented by agent Scott Boras, who is notoriously difficult to deal with in contract negotiations. Odds are high Davis signs with the Giants, "but he's not afraid to come back," Casey says. "Whatever Dylan does, I trust him and I support him."

The losses are by far the heaviest since Casey took his first team to the College World Series in 2005. There's no question 2015 will be a rebuilding year. And three of Oregon State's top recruits -- infielders Trace Loehr of Putnam High (sixth round, Oakland) and Max George of Regis, Colo. (sixth round, Colorado), and outfielder Grant Heyman of College of Southern Nevada (eighth round, Arizona) -- have signed pro deals and will never set foot on campus.

"The one area where we'll be really lacking depth is in the infield, with Trace and Max signing," Casey says. "We'll miss them, because they would have played a lot of ball for us. It will be fun to watch the players they become. We're OK with Grant signing, because it's clear he had set out to be a pro all along. The way it turned out, we're glad he signed. I'm glad he got the opportunity since he wanted to do it right away."

Four other recruits were drafted but are as yet unsigned -- right-handed pitcher Gage Hinsz of Billings, Mont. (11th round, Pittsburgh), third baseman Joe Gillette of Scotts Valley, Calif. (23rd round, St. Louis), catcher Kainoa "K.J." Harrison of Punahou, Hawaii (25th round, Cincinnati) and outfielder Elliott Cary of Clackamas High (32nd round, Washington).

All four would have been drafted higher had they not given strong indications they wanted to play college ball. One report said Cary received a pre-draft call from one club willing to offer a $2 million signing bonus; a source said another club was willing to offer Harrison $500,000 to commit to signing.

Casey is hopeful all will be with Oregon State next season, and says some of the Beavers' other incoming freshmen would have been taken in the draft had they not been intent on joining the program. Players have until July 18 to make a decision whether to sign pro or go to college.

"There were several players in this class who, if they'd wanted to go in the draft, they'd have gotten mid-round money," Casey says. "And a lot of kids were pushed to later rounds because of signability issues. The pro teams know they want to go to school.

"Everybody thinks this is a great time for (college) coaches to take a little break. It's actually the worst time of the year. You have the draft, then the unknown of who's going to sign and who's not. Then you have to get all your kids placed in summer ball, and you have to recruit (for next year's class)."

Even with the loss of Loehr, George and Heyman, Oregon State's incoming class looks strong. With the loss of Wetzler, Fry and Schultz, there will be two new weekend starting pitchers and a new closer next season. Likewise with two corner outfield players and at least one infielder.

"There are so many spots wide open, it's going to be fun to see who does what in the fall," Casey says. "You're going to see more than one freshman position player start for us. You're going to see a multitude of first-year players have an impact on our program.

"The exciting part is the opportunity it creates for the freshmen, knowing they have a real shot to play right away. If you came in as a freshman shortstop last year (as did Trever Morrison), what a great opportunity to play. If you were a corner outfielder, you were going to have to wait. Our weekend rotation was set this year. That won't be the case next year."

Cary, the state 6A player of the year, could be a starter as a freshman -- even with returning All-Pac-12 center fielder Jeff Hendrix returning.

"Elliott is a great athlete and a tremendous prospect," Casey says. "We'll play both Jeff and Elliott in center field during spring ball and see what happens. Jeff can play anywhere."

Caleb Hamilton, who started mostly at third baseman as a freshman this spring, seems likely to move to second base, which would open a potential spot for Gillette at third base.

"Joe's a versatile kid who could play anywhere, too," Casey says. "He's real athletic, and he's going to really improve with the bat."

Two Hawaiians -- Harrison and shortstop Christian Donahue of Mililani -- will challenge for playing time immediately. Harrison will compete with returning starter Logan Ice at catcher.

"KJ's bat is going to get him in the lineup somewhere," Casey says. "If both of your catchers can play another position and hit, you can give catcher breaks like you're supposed to. The guy has a big upside. We're real excited about Donahue, too, who can play either middle infield spot and is going to be a really good player for us."

Three other freshman position players who could compete for playing time are West Albany High's Jackson Soto, most valuable player in the recent State-Metro series, outfielder Cooper Brunner of Tualatin High and shortstop Michael Gretler of Bonney Lake, Wash.

"Jackson played shortstop in high school but will probably play outfield for us," Casey says. "He has some power in that bat and he's going to work his tail off to become the best he can be. Cooper's a really good athlete who I can't wait to get into our program. Michael is playing in the same summer program (Chaffey Construction) that Conforto, Davis and Morrison came from. Had he wanted to turn pro out of high school, he could have made that happen. He'll play somewhere for us."

At least one of the freshmen will be given the chance to spell Morrison, who played every inning at shortstop all season until the final inning of the first Regional game against Cal Irvine.

Casey is bringing in several pitchers who will compete for spots right away, including righthanders Hinzs, Sam Tweedt of South Salem, Drew Rassmussen of Colbert Wash. and Travis Eckert from Clark Community College in Vancouver, Wash., by way of Austin, Texas, and left-hander Ryan Mets of Olympia, Wash.

Jesuit High's Christian Martinek will be in the mix, too, if his health holds up. The 6-5, 220-pound left-hander has dealt with elbow issues that cost him miles off his fastball as a senior. He may be facing surgery, but "we are really excited about Christian," Casey says. "He's not going to play football here; that's in his best interest. His (baseball) upside is tremendous. He's going to have a great career here."

Returning starters include Hendrix and first baseman Gabe Clark, who could wind up being the 3-4 hitters in the lineup. It will be important that Ice, Morrison and Hamilton -- all starters as freshmen -- step up with leadership and also increase batting averages that were between .225 and .250 this spring. Outfielder Michael Howard, who hit .260 as a part-time starter this season, is another key returning piece.

Andrew Moore -- in the tryout camp for Team USA this summer -- will hold one rotation spot next season. Freshmen Jake Thompson and Chandler Eden will be back to try to win the other two spots, and other returnees include Zack Reser, Max Englebrekt, Mak Fox and Trent Shelton. Englebrekt has a rib injury that will keep him idle this summer, but he should be ready for fall ball.

"Do we wish Conforto and Davis were back batting in the 3 and 4 holes, and that Fry and Wetzler were back in our rotation?" Casey asks rhetorically. "Absolutely. Any time you're without the firepower we're losing, you're not going into the season with a lot of experience. But it's a chance for a lot of guys to step up as other guys have done in our seasons past."

Casey will put much of his efforts this summer into continuing to fund-raise for a $4 million Goss Stadium expansion project that has been given the go-ahead to begin on July 7 and should be completed by the end of fall ball in October. The Northwest Summer Collegiate League Corvallis Knights, who share the facility, will help with the funding.

"This is going to be something neat for our players and our fans, to continue to show commitment to the program," Casey says. "It allows the Knights to have their own locker room and coaches office. We'll have a new training room, a state-of-the-art locker room, another players' lounge, coaches office and lockers."

The Beavers will also replace the infield FieldTurf that was laid in 2007, and are considering artificial turf for the outfield, too.

"We're about halfway to our $4 million goal," Casey says. "We've done a good job of getting there, but we need some people in Beaver Nation -- who have been such a big part of all of this -- to step up and help us."

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