Urban: USF Baseball -- A proud program

June 3, 2011, 5:32 am
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June 2, 2011
URBAN ARCHIVEMychael UrbanCSNBayArea.com
They aren't exactly household, with one star-crossed exception, but the University of San Francisco baseball program has been producing some notable names for a while now.Head coach, Nino Giarratano, who was named 2011 WCC Coach of the Year, has built up tremendous respect in the college ball ranks over his 13 years at the helm on the Hilltop.Star third baseman, Stephen Yarrow, who recently helped the Dons to both their second West Coast Conference title and NCAA Tournament appearance in the last six years, was recently named the WCC Defensive Player of the Year. He and five teammates represented a school-record six first-team all-conference selections.Former Giants pitcher Jesse Foppert, former Athletic Jermaine Clark, Joe Nelson, Justin Speier and Jeff Harris are among the former Dons who have reached the Majors in the past decade or so. Several others are at various levels of the minor leagues, and yes, Scott Cousins of the Marlins is a former Don.Now consider some names familiar only to family, friends and a handful of former fellow students.Al Smoot. Mike Mooney. Kevin Cronin. Joe Williams. Buddy Holm. Paulo Della Bordella. Chris Gaggero. Eric Enos. Arnie Sambel. Mike Terry. Bob Freschi. Rob Hanke. Greg Wieser, Duffy Aceret. Buzz Lawson.A certain 6-foot-7, soft-tossing lefty, who eventually traded his spikes in for the tools of a less rigorous life in sports media, was among them, too.All of them played baseball at the USF when the program was a losing program.Good players, all. Good enough to play at the NCAA's Division I level, which is the highest level of amateur ball in the country that doesn't feature "USA" across the chest of your jersey. Some of them good enough to earn selections in the MLB draft.While playing for the Dons, virtually all of them lost more games than they won. But don't you dare call them losers.The losers were the members of an apathetic administration that regarded the baseball program as something of a necessary evil.Minimal scholarship money. Ridiculously outdated facilities. Absolutely zero effort to drum up even cursory support from the student body -- even when national powerhouses such as Stanford were rolling into the bandbox that was Benedetti Diamond, named after the program's patriarch.The head coach drew a passable salary, but the assistants could have qualified for food stamps. So bad was it that for two consecutive seasons, in 1990 and 1991, the new pitching coach was the same pitcher who led the previous year's team in losses.The results of the athletic department's gross institutional neglect -- losses, and lots of them -- were predictable. A self-fulfilling prophecy if ever there was one.So how did the Dons get from there to here, as the No. 4 seed facing the top-seeded UCLA Bruins on Friday evening in the first round of the double-elimination Los Angeles Regional of the NCAA Tournament?With a committed and loyal head coach, a collection of talented players, a dedicated core of enthusiastic alumni, and an administration that eventually stepped up and started providing the type of support any major collegiate sports program deserves.The turnaround actually started with the hiring of Rich Hill, who preceded Giarratano. But Hill, taking advantage of the fact that any improvement in the wake of the prolonged success drought would make him look like a champ, used the job as a stepping stone and was gone shortly after he arrived.Giarratano was different. He not only built on the momentum Hill started to establish, but he was in it for the long haul. Recruits look for stability in a program, and Giarrantano provided it.A modest man clearly beloved by his players, Giarratano isn't interested in taking much credit, though. After appearing with Yarrows on Chronicle Live on Tuesday, he went out of his way to gush about the increased support -- in the form of scholarship money and major improvements at Benedetti Diamond -- that helped him land the players he needed to compete with the big boys.He mentioned the alumni support, too, and Cronin has been front-and-center in terms of getting former Dons excited and involved, sending a relentless stream of e-mail touting both the program's rise, and the Dante Benedetti Foundation, the mission of which is "helping children through the game of baseball." The combination of these efforts, along with the steady rise of the program's standing in Division I, generated unprecedented interest and pride.These days, many of those aforementioned players who went through the lean years keep in touch via Facebook, swapping war stories and lauding the latest feats of the current club. Gone are the days of 25 parents, sisters, brothers and girlfriends being the only people in the stands. "We'll get 400 on a good day," Giarratano said. It doesn't sound like much, but in context, it's huge.So is Friday's game against the Bruins, where guys such as Wieser, one of the former Dons pitcher-turned-pitching coach, will again be frantically looking for updates however they can. This was was the case Sunday when USF had to beat host Gonzaga in a do-or-die WCC finale.And while UCLA is the favorite in the L.A. Regional, in a way it won't matter whether the Dons win or lose. Not to guys such as Lawson, Mooney, Smoot, and yes, that big lefty whose best fastball looked like a big-league changeup.To those guys, here's the bottom line: By putting the program on the national map, the Dons already have pulled off an upset of epic proportions.