Cal State Fullerton enters NCAA regionals confident it ‘can play with anybody’
The calm before the storm, Wednesday was a typical scene in preparation for an upcoming game. Except, that practice represented the Titans’ final home tuneup before they were to hit the road for the Stanford Regional, the first playoff appearance for the program since 2018.
“It’s pretty surreal,” junior infielder Caden Connor said. “I mean, we’ve worked our entire time being here. It feels really good for the guys that came back, trusted the coaching staff.”
Added senior infielder Zach Lew: “Fullerton has a special place in my heart and going to the postseason has definitely been a long time coming for me.”
The Stanford Regional begins Friday, with the Titans playing Texas A&M (36-25) of the Southeastern Conference at 7 p.m.
The Titans (31-22 overall, 20-10 Big West) finished second in the conference to UC San Diego (21-9). The Tritons, however, are in the midst of a four-year Division I reclassifying period and are therefore not eligible for NCAA playoff competition until the 2025 season.
Fullerton punched its ticket to the postseason on Friday, beating Cal Poly in its penultimate regular-season game to claim the automatic NCAA bid out of the Big West led by second-year head coach Jason Dietrich and players who identify as blue collar.
“Play the game the right way and play hard,” Connor said. “We’ll do anything it takes to win a baseball game. I mean, the three-hole hitter will get a bunt down if he has to.”
Connor and pitcher Tyler Stultz said it was the team’s first game of the season, a win against Stanford, no less, that helped set the tone for the kind of team they are. During that Feb. 17 game, the Titans went from being tied 1-1 after four innings to beating the Pac-12 school 8-1.
“The atmosphere on the field during that series was really crazy,” Stultz said. “It almost felt like playoffs to open our season.”
The Titans lost the three-game series with Stanford, and dropped their next multi-game matchup against Michigan before taking two of three games against Texas in March, which helped bolster Fullerton’s confidence.
“We were like, ‘OK, yeah. We can play with anybody,’” Stultz said.
Though, in reflecting on the season, Dietrich said it was not one moment or set of games that defined Fullerton’s 2023 playoff push.
“I think it’s just the body of work that they’ve done,” Dietrich said. “I knew and the coaches knew that we had a group of guys that were pretty hungry.”
There are nine active Fullerton players who have an extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which canceled the season in 2020 after 16 games. Lew and Stultz are two of four players using that extra year this season. Lew’s freshman season was 2019. Connor and four others could exercise the extra year to return for next season.
The 2022-23 roster also had 17 returning and 22 new players.
“Our job, we felt, was just to build chemistry, get them to know each other,” Dietrich said. “And teach Titan baseball and the tradition of Titan baseball. So it was exciting to start the season to see where we’re at.
“And then after the first weekend against Stanford, to get these guys to understand that they can play with anybody. But that’s tough when the program’s been struggling a little bit.”
Fullerton baseball’s five-year NCAA tournament drought was the longest in the program’s history since its first postseason trip in 1975. Since the ‘75 season, the Titans had been to an NCAA regional 41 times, making 18 College World Series appearances, finishing as the runner-up in 1992 and winning it all 1979, 1984, 1995 and 2004.
The Titans’ alumni base, which includes several players, coaches and managers in Major League Baseball, continues to boast that tradition. Some of Fullerton’s big-league alumni working just a few minutes’ drive down the 57 Freeway in Anaheim include Angels manager Phil Nevin, pitching coach Matt Wise, catcher Chad Wallach and reliever Chris Devenski, to name a few.
“Exciting to see them back in the postseason,” Nevin said.
Nevin was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1992 amateur draft out of Fullerton, a year in which he was also named most outstanding player of the ‘92 College World Series. “Jason Dietrich has done a great job of getting Fullerton back to relevance, which is nice. Where we should be. I’m looking forward to following during the regional,” Nevin said.
As for what lies ahead, the Titans recognize their program’s rich history and this year’s team’s abilities and will approach this playoffs one pitch at a time.
“We’ve gone to Omaha just as many times as all these big SEC schools,” Connor said, referring to the site of the CWS. “In the regular season, we played all those big teams and we’re ready to go against anybody.
“Everyone’s 0-0 now, so the records don’t really matter.”
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