TUCSON, Ariz. - Reigning NCAA Division II West Region champion and 2017 national runner-up University of California San Diego is ranked No. 7 in the Collegiate Baseball Newspaper preseason poll, revealed on Wednesday.
UC San Diego head coach Eric Newman, the 2017 American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA)/Diamond NCAA Division II West Region Coach of the Year, has 19 returners and 17 newcomers to form a 36-player roster for 2018, after last season's edition posted a 44-19 overall record and secured the program's first regional crown since 2010. It marked UCSD's second-best win total all-time, as Newman's club went 12-4 in postseason play, including 7-2 in elimination games.
The Tritons are led by junior first baseman Tyler Durna, who produced the opposite of a sophomore slump and took a star turn a year ago, with his team-best .363 batting average, dazzling defense, a memorable 28-game hitting streak, and a stretch of 41 straight contests in which he reached base safely. Redshirt junior Alex Eliopulos, a La Jolla native (La Jolla HS) and second-year transfer from San Diego Mesa College, should be across the diamond from Durna again at third base. Jack Rupe, Jr. (San Marcos/Mission Hills HS) is a fourth-year senior right-hander, and Preston Mott a junior left-hander who was the Opening Day mound starter in 2017.
Among the prized incoming contingent are a pair of notable transfers from Pac-12 Conference powerhouses in redshirt junior power-hitting outfielder Zander Clarke from UCLA and senior right-handed starting pitcher Mitch Hickey out of Oregon State. Clarke, who bats from the right side, slammed 15 total home runs over an incredible summer as the Great West League (GWL) Player of the Year with the Portland Pickles, adding a second straight GWL All-Star Game appearance and in fact, GWL All-Star Game Most Valuable Player distinction as well. All of that netted the Newbury Park native an outfield spot on the 2017 Perfect Game/Rawlings Summer Collegiate All-America First Team.
Hickey was one of 13 arms who saw action for Oregon State during a historic 2017 campaign that finished at 56-6 at the College World Series in Omaha, Neb. That staff completed the year with a 1.93 team ERA. Hickey, a product of Morgan Hill in Northern California, compiled a 4.91 ERA over seven relief appearances, with one save. He has a lone season of college eligibility remaining.
Not to be outshone is an exciting crop of true freshmen, highlighted by the likes of right-handers Noah Conlon and Cameron Leonard, and Shay Whitcomb, the favorite to take over the shortstop position from four-year standout Tyler Howsley. In late September, Whitcomb and Conlon made Perfect Game's Top NCAA Division II Freshmen list at No. 7 and No. 8, respectively, among 34 total prospects recognized. UC San Diego was one of four programs with multiple freshmen honored, but the lone one from the West Region, and the only one nationally with two in the top 10.
Conlon is the younger brother of PJ Conlon, a former left-handed ace for the University of San Diego who is currently the No. 23 prospect in the New York Mets organization. Noah's arrival gives UC San Diego a pair of younger brothers of one-time USD stars, as Keenan Brigman, the brother of former shortstop and No. 28 Seattle Mariners prospect Bryson Brigman, is back as a redshirt sophomore utility.
UC San Diego commences its 49-game regular-season schedule on Thursday afternoon, Feb. 8, at Concordia Irvine at 2 p.m. The home opener is set for Feb. 9 and will feature a marquee top-10 matchup under Friday night lights against fellow 2017 national semifinalist Colorado Mesa, at No. 4 in the CBN's preseason prognostication. First pitch at Triton Ballpark on East Campus is slated for 6 p.m. UCSD will host the defending South Central Region champion Mavericks a second time on Sunday, Feb. 11, at 11 a.m.
The 44-game California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) schedule begins on Friday, Feb. 16, with a four-game set in La Jolla against San Francisco State. The Tritons were second-place finishers behind Cal Poly Pomona in the CCAA South for a second year in a row, and CCAA Championship runners-up to rival Chico State.
CPP is ranked No. 14 in the preseason CBN poll, with Chico State at No. 9. The other West Region representatives reflected in the top 40 are California Baptist at No. 6, Dixie State at No. 15, city rival Point Loma at No. 24, and defending Pacific West Conference champion and 2017 West Regional host Azusa Pacific at No. 25.
UC San Diego will play two exhibition contests, both at home, as well as its annual alumni game on Friday, Jan. 26, at 6 p.m., ahead of Opening Day. One of those exhibitions will be against local foe San Diego Christian on Tuesday, Jan. 16, also at 6 p.m. The other one will be finalized in the coming weeks. Entry to all three of those games will be free, with regular-season general admission still $5. UCSD students are always admitted without charge. Parking is free only on weekends.