The USC Trojans (20-36) finished the season losing six out of their last seven, finding themselves second-to-last in the conference with a losing record for the eighth straight year. Yet, according to head coach Dan Hubbs the pieces are there to be excited.
We talked with Hubbs to address some of the big items moving forward for this young ball club. The Trojans immaturity, youth and inexperience caught Hubbs eye right away as something that will change moving forward.
That being said, Hubbs is of proud of his players, and taking over as head coach just three days before the season opener against a ranked Cal State Fullerton team was rather challenging.
“They are buying in to working hard, trying new things and all of that,” Hubbs said.
The current group of Trojans are loaded with young talent, as 16 of the 34 players on the roster are true freshmen. More importantly, the Trojans have youth not only in the starting lineup but also featured an entirely new rotation featuring four fledgling starting pitchers.
“We could be young on the mound, if we had a senior-laden lineup,” Hubbs explains. “But that just wasn’t the case, we were just young all over the field.”
The Trojans three major starters –Wyatt Strahan, Kyle Twomey and Bob Wheatley– all started games on the mound for the first time in their Trojan careers, combining for a 9-15 record on the season.
To take the next step as a program, Hubbs said the team needs to change their mindset on and off the field. What type of player do you have to be, “I want to be a dude on a really good team. And to do that, that is really hard,” Hubbs mentions as roadblocks between mediocrity and season-long success.
Despite the young lineup, the entire coaching staff was impressed with many of the young players: including Bobby Stahel, Blake Lacey, Brent Wheatley and Timmy Robinson’s second half of the season.
During the course of our discussion with Hubbs, he went on to praise practically every player on the roster, pointing out positive steps they had taken. It also required a fair assessment of the season, highlighted with close losses and cardiac comebacks largely coming up just short.
“It takes a little bit of time,” Hubbs explained about the slow development. “We want to build something that will sustain itself and not act like a band-aid. I want this to be long-term, that we can sustain of constant getting there.”
He first went to the pitching staff, praising the work of the Wheatley brothers. Freshmen Brent Wheatley delivered on the mound against UCLA, and the last few weeks overall getting on top of his fastball and “finally starting to throw downhill,” Hubbs said.
Coach Hubbs was also impressed with — as the fellas call him– ‘All Business Bob’, who went 3-4 with a 2.78 ERA in his junior season.
“It’s hard to be a Friday night starter, but every week [Bob] would throw six solid innings and find a way to give us a chance to win,” Hubbs said.
To finish out the rotation, Hubbs thought that sophomore Nigel Nootbaar did a great job of throwing strikes later in the season, and that starter Kyle Twomey improved his breaking ball as ” he did a tremendous job of getting outs even when he didn’t have his best stuff,” Hubbs said.
As for Nootbaar, the season was defined by his complete-game shutout in early May, shutting down the Washington State Cougars.
The team-oriented transformation will take time, and Hubbs believes in his core of players.
“I told my guys, I would rather feel right now how I feel, than how I felt this time at the end of last season,” Hubbs said, following the Trojans 20-36 season.
Help is on the way as prospects Jeremy Martinez and Ryan McMahon of Mater Dei and Dominic Smith of Gardena Serra as Southern California stars among the Trojans highly-ranked recruiting class. The big question, like last season that featured the loss of fourth-round infielder Rio Ruiz, can the Trojans attract the stars to stay in Southern California and not opt for the pros?
Dominic Smith, for example, is projected to be a first-round pick in the MLB Draft and will be among the names receiving lucrative contract offers to go pro following the MLB’s First-Year Player Draft this June. Even if these big-name players don’t sign, Hubbs thinks his freshmen class has a few players that come in and compete next season.
The Trojans will come into next season with seven of their nine starters on the field, unless .320-hitting James Roberts heads for the big leagues following his junior year. Other than that, the Trojans are revamped and ready to go for another exciting season of Pac-12 baseball.