On the eve of the season’s first practice, George Horton recited words being repeated by college baseball coaches across the country.
“The good news is that I think our potential this year is to be a very competitive team,” the Oregon coach said.
Horton and his players will get a gauge of their talent immediately by opening the season with four games at Texas Tech, a unanimous top-10 team in preseason polls.
“Somebody said to me ‘Why did you schedule that?” Horton recalled. “We like to play the best and we might as well not wait. We have three Pac-12 teams in the top 10. Texas Tech is an Omaha team and it will be a hostile environment and the weather might not be perfect that time of year. It will be challenging for us so that is a good thing to get ready for.”
Oregon began practice Friday, three weeks before opening the season at Texas Tech on Feb. 15.
“I’ve been dreaming about that since we found out who we were playing,” said junior pitcher Kenyon Yovan, who will start the opener. “I hope to mow through them and start the season on the right foot, but I know the guys behind me and the coaching staff is ready for it. We have a lot to prove this year and I know we can do it.”
The Red Raiders, featuring all-American third baseman Josh Jung, are ranked in the top five of four different polls with a high mark of No. 3 by D1baseball.com. Texas Tech reached the College World Series last year and opened with a win over No. 1 Florida before dropping its final two games.
“It doesn’t matter who you play, you want to be ready no matter what,” Oregon infielder Spencer Steer said. “If you are playing someone that is not No. 4 in the country, preparation is the same. If we go down there and have some success, that’s good for us and it is a good test early in the season to see where we are at. If it goes well or doesn’t, we can learn a lot from that series. … Ultimately, if we win that series it would be a good way to start off the season and we could build off it.”
The last time Oregon opened the season against a ranked opponent was 2010 at No. 4 Cal State Fullerton, Horton’s former school.
“When I coached at Fullerton, we’d open against Stanford because that was a good opener for both teams,” Horton said. “We look forward to the challenge and it is certainly huge to go into Tech and play well.”
Oregon is not in the top 25 of any preseason polls and will likely be picked to finish in the middle of the Pac-12. The Ducks feature two of the NCAA’s most-heralded starting pitchers in Yovan and junior Ryne Nelson while Steer, first baseman Gabe Matthews, catcher Jakob Goldfarb and outfielder Jonny DeLuca return to the lineup.
Oregon went 26-29 last year, including a 12-18 mark in Pac-12 play. The Ducks have missed the postseason three straight seasons while compiling an overall mark of 85-80.
“It is definitely going to be a different year for the Ducks,” Yovan said. “I am excited to see what happens.”
Oregon’s final three conference series at home are against Stanford, Oregon State and UCLA, who are all in the top five of at least one preseason poll.
“If you are going to make a splash, you have to play the game against other teams and coaches that can really play and that is fun for me,” Horton said. “We know what championship baseball looks like. Our mission leading up to Lubbock will be to play the game at a championship level. Our record and whether or not we are worthy of the challenge of the schedule will reveal itself as we go along. I’m real confident and I can say my team is real confident. I think we are all headed in the right direction and confident we can play the game a lot better.”