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Toreros are tough, and that's no bull

Feb. 27, 2008

By Jill Lieber Steeg, USA TODAY

SAN DIEGO -- Rich Hill isn't a run-of-the-mill college baseball coach. The first clue is the stack of surfboards engulfing his University of San Diego office.

"Rich and I get to work early, between 6 and 6:30 a.m.," says Ky Snyder, USD's executive director of athletics. "We always bump into each other. He's either on the way out to the waves or on the way back in. It's tough to tell. The key? Is the wet suit hung up or is it in the car?"

There are other clues Hill breaks the traditional mold. That he trains his players like New-Age Navy Seals, putting them through high-intensity cardio workouts combined with old-school calisthenics, as well as yoga, breathing and visualization exercises. That he emblazons motivational mantras on pencils, plastic cups, bulletin boards and T-shirts. That he quotes everybody from Sir Francis Bacon to Kermit the Frog.

These days, he's high on a proclamation made famous by comedian Will Ferrell in the movie Wedding Crashers: "I'm just living the dream!"

No words could be more fitting.

Beginning his 10th season as USD's baseball coach, Hill, 45, has transformed the Toreros from an average West Coast Conference team that h

USD, ranked No. 9 in the USA TODAY/ESPN Baseball Coaches Poll, opens the season Friday with a four-game series against crosstown rival San Diego State, coached by Hall of Famer and "Mr. San Diego" Tony Gwynn.

A year ago, USD posted a 43-18 record (its first 40-win season), won its third WCC title under Hill, had four players named to various All-America teams, four players drafted or turning pro (27 total in Hill's USD career) and became the first WCC school to receive a national seed in the NCAA tournament and the first school in San Diego to host an NCAA Regional.

The Toreros also signed the nation's No. 1 2008 recruiting class, according to Baseball America. They are led by three preseason All-Americas, including junior lefthander Brian Matusz, who could be the No. 1 pitcher taken in the June draft and possibly No. 2 overall. (Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh have the first two picks.)

Making the turn

USD's program began to make a dramatic turn upward about five years ago. Hill hired pitching coach Eric Valenzuela and a few years later added hitting coach Jay Johnson. Coming on board in Fall 2005 were Matusz and Josh Romanski, a left-hander/outfielder and preseason All-America.

Then, in February 2006, the Toreros put themselves on the map, sweeping defending national champion Texas in a three-game series at home. "It was shock-the-world stuff," Hill says. "We became a national-caliber team overnight."

Says Matusz: "That's when I knew we were a program on the rise. The team was very, very close. We decided we wanted to be in the national spotlight."

That they are. Perennial power Texas is ranked No. 7 in the USA TODAY/ESPN poll, and two-time defending national champion Oregon State is No. 11. All of which prompts Hill (309-219-3) to launch into a quote.

"As the Sesame Street song goes, 'One of these things is not like the others,' " Hill says. "Look at the schools that are 1 through 20! What's USD doing on this list?"

Unlike Texas, Oregon State and the other traditional powers that boast numerous national titles and appearances in the NCAA men's College World Series, USD does not come close to having their financial resources, state-of-the-art facilities or name recognition.

USD does not have a Bowl Championship Series football program to generate revenue for its athletic department. Its Cunningham Stadium seats just 1,200. To host last June's NCAA Regional, they had to rent Tony Gwynn Stadium from San Diego State, although Hill credits Gwynn for making it happen.

Gwynn, though, has not been able to capitalize on his fame. Since Gwynn (142-162) took over in 2002, the Aztecs have never been to an NCAA Regional and have had only one winning season. They received no votes in the poll. And Gwynn is 3-10 against Hill. Gwynn is in the final year of his contract, but athletics director Jeff Schemmel told The San Diego Union-Tribune he's "not on the hot seat."

"I was really happy for Tony when he got the job at San Diego State," Hill says. "I could see his passion and energy for starting something new. He was fired up for the next chapter in his life."

Omaha or bust

Being ranked among the giants doesn't faze Hill or his players.

"We don't look at rankings," says Matusz, 21, from Cave Creek, Ariz. Fellow junior Romanski, 21, from Corona, Calif., agrees: "We're focused on Omaha," site of the College World Series.

Still, Matusz and Romanski recently have been working overtime to soak up more of Hill's hang ten, er, hang loose attitude. Both communication studies majors with minors in leadership, they are enrolled in anthropology, "Surf Culture and History" and, among other things, are writing haikus.

"It's an intense course," Romanski says. "We had a 250-page book to read in the first two weeks."

To make sure the Toreros keep their eyes on the prize, Hill has taped three photos of Omaha's Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium to the board behind his desk. He also has printed up T-shirts, one with "OMAHA" written across the front, the other with "WHAT TIME IS IT? NOW WHERE ARE YOU? HERE" wrapped around the bottom.

"The media asks, 'What about the pressure of being ranked?' " Hill says. "They're all attachments to a task. We have a goal, but our focus shrinks with training and preparation. Rankings are so the experts can validate what you've done in the past. They help you attract recruits, but they don't help you play better, and that's what we're after."

Says Matusz: "Coach Hill instills in us to be great that day, to always stay in the moment."

Hence, his favorite Hill T-shirt creation: "M.A.G.I.C. TODAY" -- for Make A Greater Individual Commitment Today.

To explain how the Toreros got to this point, Hill starts with a Bacon quote: "We rise to great heights by a winding staircase."

Hill is a Northern California beach boy who cut his coaching teeth at alma mater California Lutheran, the University of San Francisco and the Cape Cod League. He and his wife, Lori, a Southern California girl, and their children Robbie, 16, and Lindsey, 13, jumped at the USD opportunity and chance to embrace the San Diego lifestyle.

"I walked in and said, 'How are we going to compete at the national level?' " Hill recalls. He decided to focus on recruiting and development. "I went into hundreds of homes and told parents, 'We're going to make your son a ballplayer, perhaps even a big leaguer, and at the same time, he'll get an education that is unparalleled."

Hill put out "an extreme effort" with home visits and speaking engagements at every San Diego baseball or community function imaginable. As the established, big-time programs looked for blue-chip high school players, Hill beat the bushes for long-range prospects. Would they opt to sign pro contracts out of high school, or would they play college ball and be the right fit for USD?

"We didn't worry about recruiting against the West Coast powers," he says. "We were going to build this ourselves. We called it a paradigm shift. We adopted the mantra, 'Act as if ... .' Act as if we're a national contender. Act as if we're West Coast Conference champions. Act as if we're West Regionals champs."

He had those dreams printed on pencils and plastic cups. "It was important for (the players) to look at it 24/7," he said.

Now, they're in the top 10.

"They have one responsibility: Be great today," Hill says. "We demand maximum effort on the field, in the classroom and in regards to character."