(Photo via St. Mary’s Magazine website, seen here)

Written by CBBSN Scout, Alex Lazich

St. Mary’s head coach Eric Valenzuela last reached the College World Series in 1998 as a member of the Arizona State Sun Devils.

He seems to be doing everything in his power to get back there.

Valenzuela took the Gaels to their first .500 or better season in 7 years in 2014. In 2016, he led the Gaels to a West Coast Conference title and the first NCAA tournament in their program’s history. His 2016 efforts led to his being named the West Coast Conference’s 2016 coach of the year.  The Gael’s 2017 team fell short of winning the conference, but finished with an outstanding 18-9 conference record and 37-20 overall. Who returns from the high-powered 2017 team? Nearly everyone, with eight out of nine starters returning, including their top hitters. While they lost their weekend rotation from 2017, the new guys are here to impress. Junior transfer Nick Frank put up a 2.96 era while going 7-2 for the Delta College Mustangs and leading them to a third place finish in the Big 8. Two-way stud Kevin Milam, the West Coast Conference 2017 Freshman of the Year, returns and is making the transition from the bullpen (3-1, 2.27 ERA, 9 Saves) to the starting rotation. He is projected as the West Coast Conference’s player of the year by Baseball America and has three preseason All-American nods. His classmate, sophomore Ken Waldichuk (3-4, 2.00 era) will join Milam and Frank to round out St. Mary’s weekend rotation.

Last year’s top three West Coast Conference teams ended with 20-7 records, with BYU taking home the championship. 2018 sees the West Coast Conference similarly competitive, although St. Mary’s high number of returning players and mix of veteran and young players make it “the team to beat,” as labelled by Baseball America.

Don’t just expect St. Mary’s to win with veterans. They come into the season with eight new pitchers and eight new position players, 14 of which are freshmen. Coach Valenzuela has a history of finding and recruiting great players. As a coach with San Diego State, his 2006 and 2007 draft classes were ranked among the top of the nation, with his 2007 class ranked as the number one recruiting class. Similarly, his 2010 and 2011 recruiting classes were ranked in the top 25 in the nation. In his three years at St. Mary’s he has coached two All-Americans, 13 All-WCC selections and seven MLB Draft picks, five of which were selected in first 20 rounds. Don’t be surprised if impact players arise from 2017’s recruiting class to help push this team to playoff glory.

These Gaels have all the tools of an elite team. Top notch offense? The 2017 team placed second in runs scored per game and third in batting average. Star player? Kevin Milam. Pitching? Although last year their pitching was not as potent as their offense, the Gael’s new pitching staff look poised for a breakout season, especially with Kevin Milam moving to the rotation.

Eric Valenzuela hasn’t been to a College World Series in twenty years, but his 2018 Gaels team stands a good chance of getting him back there.

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