By Samuel Chi
This weekend's Super Regional matchup against UCLA is nothing short of a must-win series for the Titans. The program hasn't had one this important since these two teams last met in the Supers in 2010, when a seismic shift in Southern California college baseball landscape began to take shape.
When the Titans emerged as a powerhouse in the late 1970s and early 1980s, their first local nemesis was USC, whose five-year reign was snapped by the first-year Titans in the 1975 regional. Over time, the Titans have developed rivalries with Stanford and Arizona State, with the former largely owning the Titans while the Titans mostly dominating the latter, including this past weekend.
But then UCLA burst onto the scene; and the one person most responsible for the Bruins' sudden emergence as a national power is John Savage.
Before Savage took over, UCLA had been a major-league talent-producing machine under former coach Gary Adams. An affable man who was able to recruit future stars such as Eric Karros, Troy Glaus, Jeff Conine and Chase Utley, among others, Adams was an absolute underachiever when it came to on-field success. In his 30 years at the helm in Westwood, the Bruins made it to Omaha exactly once - in 1997.
Savage came to UCLA from UC Irvine in 2005 and went about changing the culture of the place. While he was able to continue to reel in elite players - something UCLA never had trouble doing - he wanted to instill a focused toughness that had sorely been lacking in Westwood. Winning, instead of padding stats and looking good for pro scouts became more of a priority as UCLA won six Pac-10 titles in his first eight seasons.
A key hire he made in 2009 changed the Bruins' fortunes in the postseason. Rick Vanderhook, a longtime Fullerton assistant who was passed over for the head job when George Horton left for Oregon, brought a measure of scrappiness and nastiness to Westwood. In essence, he instilled the Fullerton Way to toughen up the oft-soft Bruins.
And in 2010, a key moment for UCLA arrived.
The Titans had always had UCLA's number, in postseason or otherwise. There was without a doubt which was the most dominant baseball program in Southern California, going back 35 years. By 2010, UCLA had made it to Omaha just twice in its history, whereas the Titans were in the College World Series six times in the previous nine years, winning their fourth national title in 2004.
And everything looked about more of the same in that 2010 Super Regional showdown in Westwood - the first time the Bruins ever hosted the Supers. After having eliminated UCLA in the 2007 and 2008 postseasons, the Titans were one out away from doing it a third time in four seasons, and with it, another trip to Omaha.
But then the Bruins dug in and, thanks to a lapse in attentiveness on the Titans' part, the fortunes of both programs changed. Tyler Rahmatullah's two-run shot would indelibly alter the dynamics of Southern California baseball for the immediate future.
The Bruins went on to win that Super Regional in three games, despite being outplayed for the first 53 outs, and they would go to Omaha again in 2012. This series will be their third Supers appearance in four years.
Meanwhile, the Titans fell on hard times, by Fullerton standards. They matched their longest Omaha drought in the program's history when the Titans failed to even get to the regional final in 2011 and 2012. Dave Serrano left for Tennessee after the 2011 season and Vanderhook returned to Fullerton after three years at UCLA, this time as the head man.
After a disappointing season in 2012 when the Titans again came up short, Vanderhook has been nothing short of brilliant in his second season as Fullerton's head coach. He hired UC Irvine's Jason Dietrich as the pitching coach, who promptly tutored one of the nation's best pitching staffs, headed by two true freshmen. The Titans won the Big West by six games and at 51-8, have the fewest losses of any team entering Super Regional play.
But none of that would mean squat if the Titans can't vanquish the Bruins on home soil this weekend.
This series is a war between Old Money and New Money; a contest between a program backed by a loyal and vocal fan base vs. one adored by the national media and few others; a bout between two programs that might be mirror images of each other on the field, but two schools that were galaxies apart in everything else.
If the Titans lose this series, that would mean for the first time a senior who played all four years in Fullerton didn't make a trip to Omaha. It would mean a four-year drought made worse by the fact that UCLA were in the CWS three times during that period, including twice at Fullerton's expense. It would signal the possibility that the baseball program might be going the way of Titans softball.
A Titans victory this weekend would go a long way of restoring order in SoCal baseball. By winning this series, the Titans will finally be able to put the 2010 nightmare to rest and treat it as a mere hiccup in the glorious and improbable history of Fullerton baseball. Getting past UCLA also means the Titans will be back in Omaha for the 17th time (but for the first time since the new ballpark opened) to continue their quest to be the only school to win a national title in every decade since the 1970s.
In short, a victory will allow the Titans to resume business as usual. That's why this series isn't just life and death - only a lot more important than that.