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February 6, 2014

Aztecs looking to keep MWC baseball crown

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Written by: Ryan Posner
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Photo by Jordan Owen, Senior Staff Photographer

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“Survive and advance,” the motto of former NCAA basketball coach Jim Valvano, was adopted by the San Diego State baseball team last season down the stretch when they were forced to win the Mountain West Conference tournament to receive a bid to a regional playoff, after only going 31-31 in the regular season.

The key for head coach Tony Gwynn was to survive one game at a time in the conference tournament and advance to the next one.

“You know we get in there; we beat Air Force the first day, then we played (University of Nevada, Las Vegas) and we lost,” Gwynn said. “Now you’re sitting there with one loss, knowing one loss is going to send you home, and you want to keep playing.”

The Aztecs were able to accomplish their goal when they defeated New Mexico two games in a row, winning the tournament and clinching a berth into the regional.

“When we won and went out and celebrated on the field, as (the team) came back to the dugout it was kind of awesome to hear them say, ‘Hey we’re Mountain West champs, we’re going to a regional, Coach!’” Gwynn said.

This was the players’ first time playing in a regional, and for some, it was an experience they had been dreaming about since they began playing college baseball.

“The regional atmosphere was indescribable,” senior infielder Tim Zier said. “It was a dream for me to play college baseball, and then my higher dream was to play in a regional.”

While they were not able to come away with a victory in the regional tournament, losing to the University of San Diego 6-3 and the eventual national champion UCLA 5-3, there were many positives the team and coaching staff were able to take away from the experience.

“Now they know they can do it—they have done it already,” Gwynn said.  “We got a majority of the guys on the team last year coming back and I think they are pretty confident.”

Coming into this season, SDSU will showcase a fairly similar roster to the one it ran out last year. However, one face that will be missing from last season is the team’s catcher, Jake Romanski.

Not only was Romanski productive offensively, batting .303 with three home runs, he was also an exceptional defender who threw out 48.4 percent of would-be base stealers. Off the field Romanski was also regarded as a fantastic leader the players could look up to.

“Losing a guy like Romanski is tough. He was really good, and yes, you’re going to suffer a little bit with him gone, but hey, that’s just the nature of college baseball,” Gwynn said.

New to the scene will be pitching coach John Pawlowski, who had been the head coach of Auburn for the last five seasons.  He will be replacing Eric Valenzuela, who took the head coaching vacancy at Saint Mary’s after serving as the Aztecs’ pitching coach and recruiting coordinator the past four seasons.  With Pawlowski, SDSU is able to bring an experienced coach onto the staff to help aid a team that is on the doorstep of doing big things.

“You look at the program, San Diego State, the history and the tradition that is here speaks for itself, and the opportunity to be a part of something special excited me,” Pawlowski said.

A key player that will be returning will be junior starting pitcher Michael Cederoth, who, after striking out 109 batters in 95.1 innings last season, garnered some national attention, and is now projected to go high in the MLB draft this summer.

Cederoth knows he has room to improve though, and after posting a sub-par 4.25 ERA has made adjustments during the offseason.

“I have been focusing more on throwing strikes,” Cederoth said. “That same philosophy has helped me not focus on who is in the stands watching, and more on who I am playing for.”

For the first time, SDSU will open up its season against a conference opponent when it begins a three game series at San Jose State University starting Feb. 14. Its first home game will be against Loyola Marymount University on Feb. 18.

After their Cinderella-like run last year to make it into a regional, the Aztecs know they have what it takes to be Mountain West champs and make it to the playoffs again. With a strong sense of confidence throughout, it’s safe to say the team is anxious and ready to kick off the season and improve on what they have already accomplished.

“We can start tomorrow and all of us would be ready,” Cederoth said. “You can feel the energy during practice. We want to get going.”

 Photo by Jordan Owen, Senior Staff Photographer

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