May 21, 2010

By Harold Gutmann
Special to

UC San Diego didn't have the most successful start in Division II. The Tritons were the only D-II baseball program that didn't offer scholarships, which helped explain the team's 14-34 record.

"There was a lot of frustration," coach Dan O'Brien said. "It was a huge undertaking, but we were determined to make it happen."

Just nine years later, UCSD (51-7) is ranked No. 1 in the country and is the only school making a return appearance at the eight-team NCAA D II national championships, which start Saturday at the USAB National Training Complex in Cary, N.C.

O'Brien said the program's transformation was the product of three things - work ethic, focus and determination.

"Ironically, it's the same thing we look for in our players," O'Brien said.

Those traits are exemplified by UCSD leadoff hitter Vance Albitz, a career .350 hitter whose 324 hits are sixth in NCAA history.

"I think it's just being able to take one at-bat at a time and grind out every single pitch in the at-bats over four years," Albitz said.

Albitz owns three of the top five spots on the UCSD single-season hit list, including a career-best 88 this season. He also holds the school record for runs scored (216), doubles (64) and assists (778).

In fact, the 2009 NCAA All-American may be even more impressive at shortstop, where he was named the NCAA Division II National Defensive Player of the Year in 2009.

"Our team emphasized defenses a lot, probably more than other teams," Albitz said of the Tritons, who lead the nation with a .984 fielding percentage. "We take a great deal of pride in defense."
Of course, as the No. 1 team entering the tournament, the Tritons are dominant in all areas. Four Tritons are hitting over .400 - California Collegiate Athletic Association and Daktronics West Region Player of the Year Brandon Gregorich (.469 with 29 doubles and 84 RBI), Kellen Lee (.423, eight home runs), Kyle Saul (.415, 18 stolen bases) and Aaron Bauman (.412, .553 on base percentage).

CCAA Pitcher of the Year and Daktronics All-West Region Pitcher of the Year Matt Rossman is 9-0 with a 2.45 ERA and has allowed four earned runs or less in every start.

The rotation also includes Tim Shibuya, who is 12-2 with a 1.95 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 111 innings; Guido Knudson (9-3, 4.09 ERA), who threw a complete-game in the NCAA West Region title clincher against Hawaii Pacific; and Kirby St. John (11-1, 3.92 ERA), who threw a complete game in the CCAA tournament championship.

Besides the impressive numbers, UCSD is also the only team to have experience playing in the National Training Complex, which hosted the championships for the first time last season.

But O'Brien isn't counting on his team's statistics, top ranking or semifinal appearance to help this week.

"Many of the teams that are there have been ranked in the Top 10 and have been dealing with high expectations all year," O'Brien said. "Everyone's talented and battle-tested. It really comes down to the team that plays good, solid baseball."

UCSD's first opponent will be Georgia College & State (39-15) Saturday at 5 p.m. GCSU is appearing at the Division II national championships for the first time in 15 years.

Also in the field at Cary is five-time champion Tampa (46-9), which is ranked second, and two-time national champion and third-ranked Central Missouri (51-9).

O'Brien was the captain at UCSD for two seasons in 1994-95, which included a third-place finish at the Division III College World Series. While he said it's been rewarding to bring his alma mater from 14-34 back to championship-caliber status, it's not over yet.

"I'm exited about where we are," O'Brien said. "But I really feel like we're just getting started."