Six position players who played extensively last season and several veteran pitchers have Cal State Bakersfield's baseball players and coaches excited as the program begins a new era.
The bulk of CSUB athletics will move to the Western Athletic Conference on July 1, but baseball gets a head start as an affiliate member of the 10-team WAC this season.
CSUB got its season going Friday with the official first practice of the spring. The season opener is Friday, Feb. 15, at 3 p.m., a home game vs. Nebraska. USC plays at CSUB in a 2 p.m. game on Feb. 16, and Cal State Fullerton plays a 2 p.m. game at CSUB on Feb. 17.
"It's a special feeling knowing you're the first one from our school," said junior catcher Cael Brockmeyer about moving into the WAC. "We hope to represent our school well."
Brockmeyer led CSUB last season with six home runs and 32 RBIs.
"That's the most exciting part," said senior left-handed pitcher Jonathan Montoya, who missed all of last season with Tommy John surgery to his left elbow, but is hoping to return by the season-opening weekend. "Being a fifth-year senior. Finally, we're in a conference."
Baseball America has picked CSUB to finish eighth in the WAC. The Roadrunners went 25-30 last season.
"Collegiate Baseball had 11 teams they mentioned in their poll, none of which was Cal State Bakersfield," coach Bill Kernen said. "They seem to think it won't go well for us. We haven't done anything on the field yet to prove otherwise. That's going to be our objective. ... It's always better to be the underdog," he said. "If we finish eighth in the WAC, I'll fire myself."
Among last year's front-line players returning are Brockmeyer, second baseman Oscar Sanay, shortstop Tyler Shryock, left fielder Kevin Younger, right fielder Jordie Hein and first baseman-outfielder Dylan Christensen.
Hein and Garrett Pierce, a sophomore from Centennial High, will battle for the center field spot to replace graduated Andrew Letourneau. Kernen said whoever doesn't play center will probably wind up in right field.
Jeff McKenzie (6-5 record, 2.67 ERA), Scott Brattvet (6-5, 4.75) and Montoya (8-5, 3.67 in 2010) will likely be the three weekend starters.
The closer role is undecided, Kernen said.
Two freshmen who impressed Kernen during the fall season were infielder Mylz Jones, who will likely start the season at third base, and utility player Chase Gusbeth, who may wind up at first base. Also in the mix at first base are freshmen Chris Mallon and Garces High graduate Nick Vehlewald.
"It's a big jump," Vehlewald said. "Guys throw a lot harder. When you're in high school, you can tell which guys will go D-1. Other guys are good and can go to JuCo. But if they come out here they're the best from every high school. You can tell it's a lot better baseball."
Kernen said this season's squad has the potential to rank with the 2011 team as the strongest in the program's history. The 2011 team went 33-22 and barely missed out on an NCAA tournament berth as an at-large team.
"We have the prerequisite ability to be the best team we've had here," Kernen said. "That doesn't always work on the field. It will depend on the will they have to sustain it the whole year and to come out here week after week after week, particularly once we get into conference."