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Hill Climbing

May 23, 2007

North County Times

SAN DIEGO -- Speaking into a telephone some 1,300 miles away, Augie Garrido's enthusiasm is unmistakable.

Though the legendary University of Texas baseball coach has claimed five national titles and won more games than anyone in NCAA Division I history, he seems genuinely blown away by the accomplishments of a youthful, board-shorts-clad coach of a small Catholic school on the West Coast.

"It's pretty amazing, just a fabulous success story," Garrido said of the University of San Diego's Rich Hill. "When you think of where they are in the national rankings and RPI and how many schools they've gone by -- including us -- that are national powers, it's really remarkable what Rich and his staff have been able to do."

Glance at Baseball America's national rankings, and it's easy to understand the praise. The University of San Diego has climbed to the No. 5 spot; Garrido's Longhorns, who dropped two of three games against the Toreros in February, are two spots behind.

It all seems so unfathomable. USD (41-15), which plays in a cozy 1,200-seat stadium with no lights or locker rooms, has emphatically staked its spot among the nation's elite.

Surrounding the Toreros in the poll are mostly name schools that boast big conferences, big stadiums and big budgets.

"On paper, everything says, 'What in the world are we doing with this group of schools?' " Hill said. "All these schools we're lumped in there with have states across their chest. People can look at it as an aberration or lightning in a bottle, but I don't know.

"I'm a daydreamer, man. I basically think that miracles can happen."

In Hill's ninth year on the job, this miracle season has hardly come out of nowhere. The Carmel Mountain Ranch resident has produced winning teams every year since his arrival from the University of San Francisco before the 1999 season, and he hasÝled the Toreros to three NCAA regional appearances.

How has he done it?

The answer goes far beyond an outgoing personality and surfer-dude image.

No-nonsense approach

It's wise not to be fooled by those shorts and shades. Beneath Hill's laid-back demeanor lies a seriousness that doesn't take long to detect.

"Growing up with a single mom up in Saratoga, all my coaches up from Little League through college, really, every one of them had a huge impact on me," he said. "That's why I treat this profession with kind of a sacred outlook."

That outlook makes the former infielder at San Diego State and Cal Lutheran demanding of his players. Hill said he places "extreme emphasis" on accountability and discipline in his program, and opts to recruit players that are just as strong in the classroom as they are on the field.

USD's most recent Academic Progress Rating figure of 938Ýis above the Division I average.

"Any player that isn't extremely self-motivated to be the best he can be is going to have a hard time playing for me," Hill said.

Toreros pitcher/outfielder Josh Romanski said missteps -- on or off the field -- rarely go uncorrected in the Toreros' program.

"He's a tough coach to play for, and not everyone can play for him," Romanski said. "But if you can handle his toughness, and his sarcastic sense of humor, then you'll be all right in the program."

During games, Hill is known as a live wire, often chattering between pitches to get his players in the right frame of mind.

"We approach every game like it's a Friday night football game," Hill said. "It's attention to detail, and we're very focused and prepared on game day. And then I want the players to play the game like they did when they were 10 years old, when they were playing Wiffle Ball in the backyard."

'Attack mode'

USD's starting rotation features two left-handed pitchers -- Romanski and Brian Matusz -- who were selected this week to the U.S. national team. Garrido even said Matusz may be the best pitcher in college baseball.

The stellar sophomores were both major-league draft picks out of high school, making them far from your typical West Coast Conference recruits. Then again, Hill's recruiting apparatus is a little better than most.

Hill's knack for landing big recruits recently earned him a speaking engagement. He obliged when asked by USD athletic director Ky Snyder to give a presentation on his recruiting methodology in front of the rest of the coaches in the department.

The key, Hill said, is being connected in every geographic region in the West andÝdeveloping a solid plan of attack. In this area, he leans heavily on assistant coaches Eric Valenzuela and Jay Johnson, a duo he says excels in organization and the ability to build a rapport with recruits.

Then there's what Hill calls "attack mode."

"We have the philosophy that nobody is going to outwork us on the recruiting trail," he said. "It's a very personalized approach with a lot of home visits and a lot of campus visits. It's personal interaction rather than a lot of mail."

The personal touch combined with Hill's high energy is what helped sell Romanski, a heavily recruited all-state selection out of Norco High.

"He was fired up," he said. "It was something I wanted to be a part of. I like to play for coaches that have a passion for the game."

Quality players landing at a mid-major program like USD is far from unheard of in the world of college baseball, where the availability of only 11.7 scholarships can restrict big-money schools from fully flexing their muscles.

But institutional parity can only explain so much.

"Any school can get top-flight players; the NCAA has provided that opportunity, but that doesn't necessarily spell success," Garrido said. "That has to do with Rich Hill and his staff -- their abilities in recruiting and player development."

Attractive candidate

If Hill wasn't already a candidate for the short lists of big-time athletic directors, this season has surely cemented his place as a sought-after commodity.

Cal State Fullerton coach George Horton compared the rise of Hill's star with that of Andy Lopez in the early 1990s. Lopez, now at Arizona, coached Pepperdine to the 1992 national title before being snatched up by Florida in 1994.

"I can definitely see that happening with Rich," Horton said. "He had success at Cal Lutheran, and it took him a while to build up USD, but they're rolling now.

"He's young and energetic -- a good person who has good people around him. I definitely think he would be a guy who would have a lot of opportunities if he wanted to move on."

Hill said he has been on the radar of larger schools in past years, occasionally being contacted by inquiring boosters. But he remains in Linda Vista, working in a job and living in an area that suits him.

As for the details of his current contract, Hill said only that it is a multiyear deal he's happy with. He added that it would take a "real crazy" offer to woo him away from USD.

"The grass isn't always greener -- that's the mentality that I have," he said. "That being said, I definitely want to be in the College World Series and be at the highest level possible. So you never say never.

"But at this point, I have a great job and I'm extremely happy."

Happy, but not yet satisfied. Another thing keeping Hill firmly grounded at USD for the time being is the unrealized goal of taking the Toreros to Omaha for the first time.

"It's not like you go to bed visualizing No. 5 in the country or 'X' number of wins," Hill said. "It's about championships. So we're going to complete the job or die trying."