May 6, 2010

By Amy Farnum

The University of Portland has really never been known for its baseball program, but that is something head coach Chris Sperry has been trying to change over the last few years.  

The Pilots (31-9) have been the cellar dwellers of the West Coast Conference for years, finishing seventh or eighth in the league standings for the last seven seasons, and predicted to place ninth in the WCC Preseason Coaches’ Poll in 2010.  But Portland has been one of the surprises of college baseball this year, already guaranteeing the program’s first winning record since 1992 and currently sitting in second place in the WCC standings with an 11-1 mark.  

Portland’s lack of a winning baseball tradition was not the only obstacle Sperry has faced while trying to build the program into a regional contender.  When Sperry took the head coaching position in 1998, he had one part-time coach that made $6,000 on his staff. Limited funding, outdated facilities and rainy weather at a small, private, high-tuition institution in the Northwest were also hurdles he encountered.

During his tenure, mostly over the last four years, Sperry has hired two full-time assistant coaches, brought an experienced volunteer assist on board and has seen the program construct an indoor hitting and pitching facility.  The result has been a very rewarding season – the program’s best since 1991 – the year of its’ last NCAA Regional appearance.

“It’s the best our program has played in a long, long while,” said Sperry.  “We’ve seen some development in the program since those things have been completed, and we’re enjoying a nice season.”

Four years ago, Portland hired Larry Casian, a former left-handed set-up man that spend several seasons in the big leagues and his experience has helped the Pilots put together a pitching staff that ranks sixth in Division I with a 3.24 ERA.  Assistant coach Tucker Brack, who works with the squad’s infielders, is in his second year with the Pilots, and Sperry says he brings a lot of energy to the program.  Dale Stebbins is in his first year as a volunteer assist, and brings 23 years as a local community college head coach to the club.

“Those guys (like Casian) that have to figure things out in order to survive make really good teachers,” said Sperry.  “They have gained a lot experience that they can pass on to kids that play at the level we play at – not necessarily blessed first-round talent year in and year out.”

Those challenges, combined with recruiting against Oregon State and Oregon of the mighty Pac-10 Conference, has made for a difficult task.  Oregon State won back-to-back NCAA titles in 2006 and 2007, while Oregon reinstated its’ dormant program in 2009, hiring a national champion head coach George Horton (Cal State Fullerton), and constructing a state-of-the-art baseball stadium.

“It’s very tough, if not impossible (to recruit against OSU and OU),” said Sperry.  “Oregon has made a real splash resurrecting their program.  They’ve done things in a big way very quickly.  The work that Coach Pat Casey and his staff at Oregon State have done have really put college baseball in the Northwest on the map. It’s turned into kind of a hotbed, and if nothing else the guys at Oregon State have proven that we do actually play baseball here.”

Despite the obvious barriers, somehow, Portland has figured out the formula to success this season, and Sperry points first to the team’s pitching depth.

“The pitching sets the tone and they’ve done a wonderful job with that,” said Sperry.  “As a result of that our defense and hitters have developed an awful lot of confidence.”  

The pitching staff boasts two solid starters in junior Zach Varce (5-1, 3.08 ERA) and sophomore Kyle Kraus (9-0, 3.55 ERA).  After spending the most of his first two seasons as a closer, Varce is now the Pilots’ Friday starter, and has flourished in the role.  

“(Varce) doesn’t really get rattled,” said Sperry.  “He’s got four pitches he throws for strikes and doesn’t often have to depend on his fast ball where hitters can just sit on it.  Hitters, to this point, have been off-balance most of the time.”  
On Saturdays, Portland trots out Krause, who was the squad’s Friday starter last season.  

“He’s not going to impress you with the radar, and probably pitch about 87 mph, but he’s got four pitches he can throw for strikes and is a control guy,” said Sperry.  “He can really field his position and hold runners.  He’s fiercely competitive and fiercely confident.”

The addition of junior transfer Chris Dennis, who became the Pilots’ closer this year, gave the coaching staff the ability to tool with the starting rotation.

“He has been a huge addition to the team because no matter what day it is when the starter leaves in the seventh, the game is over when Chris comes in,” said Varce.

With a solid pitching staff in place, everything else seems to be clicking for the Pilots.

“I think everyone was tired of being told we were projected to finish last (in the WCC) again,” said Varce.  “We started winning some games and got a little bit of confidence.  It seems like a different person steps up every game. We’ve gotten down by five or six runs, and in past years guys would look kind of defeated.  This year, no one really gets down, just concentrates on how we’re going to get the runs back.”  

The Pilots are riding an 11-game winning streak, and are fresh off a midweek defeat of No. 19 Oregon, as they enter a crucial three-game WCC series against San Diego on May 7-9.  The Toreros are 12-0 in league play, while Portland sits in second place at 11-1.  

“I’m anticipating a very difficult weekend,” said Sperry.  “This will be another in a long line of challenges that we’ve faced this season.  I’m expecting we will be challenged offensively because they’ve got a very good pitching staff.  I’m also anticipating that our pitchers will give us a chance to win and we’ll play with some confidence.”  

“Right now, this looks like it is going to be the championship series since we don’t have a conference tournament,” said Varce.  “We knew from the start that San Diego would probably be our toughest conference opponent this year – they’re good every year.  We’re ready for a battle.”

Portland and San Diego open the series at Joe Etzel Field on May 7 at 3 p.m. PT.