Editor's note: This is the ninth in an ongoing series exploring the Utes' move to the Pac-12 Conference, which will take place July 1.
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah baseball coach Bill Kinneberg knows exactly what the Utes are getting into in the Pac-12. Besides being an Arizona graduate, he's spent time as an assistant at his alma mater and at rival Arizona State.
The expanding Pac-10, he noted, is one of the nation's premier baseball conferences from top to bottom.
"All 10 teams are trying to go to Omaha. That's their goal," Kinneberg said of the quest to reach the College World Series. "Winning the conference is big, but they all have aspirations to win the national championship."
It's a far cry from the Mountain West Conference, where only TCU is equipped to make a national run on a consistent basis. In the Pac-10, eight of the teams have made it to the NCAA regionals over the past two seasons. The only two that haven't (USC and Washington) have both hired new coaches and are trying to rebuild.
"The challenge is tremendous," Kinneberg said of the task at hand for Utah.
The Utes, however, are making the move on a high note. They were 29-21 last season, their first winning campaign since 2002. In 2009, they won the MWC tournament title and reached the NCAA regionals for the first time in 49 years.
"I think we have a much better chance now of going on to the NCAAs than we ever had being in the Mountain West," said Kinneberg, who explained it's a great advantage to be in a conference that receives multiple bids each year.
Getting in the mix, however, will require a lot of work.
"We have to do a great job of recruiting and start to build this thing so that we are competitive," Kinneberg said. "I think we would have been competitive this year with the team that we had. Next year is a new thing. We'll have to see."
Utah will be without All-American first baseman C.J. Cron and all-conference pitcher Rick Anton. Cron was drafted in the first round (17th overall) by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, while Anton was taken in the eighth round by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Kinneberg noted that Cron's rise from a 44th-round draft pick out of high school to his current status is proof positive a player can come to Utah and prosper.
"He's given us a lot of publicity and notoriety around the country," Kinneberg said. "We're a step ahead of where we were because of him."
Recruiting has also taken a bounce with the conference switch. Kinneberg said the program has already been able to speak with and sign players they wouldn't have without Pac-12 membership.
Attracting better players is a priority.
"Our depth has got to get better," said Kinneberg, who believes Utah's top six players could play on any team in the league. It's the No. 7-15 spots, however, that need to be improved. Same goes for developing a deeper bullpen.
Those things, Kinneberg added, need to change in order for Utah's depth to match up with the competition in the Pac-12. The Utes, he continued, can match up with anybody in a one-game deal. Playing a series, though, requires more depth.
The building process is under way. Utah has signed eight players to National Letters of Intent for next season. The recruiting class includes RHP Tanner Tripp (South Mountain CC, Ariz.); infielder/RHP Ethan Leiter (Yavapai CC, Ariz.); infielder Ryan Cooperstone (College of Southern Idaho); second baseman Kody Davis (Juan Diego HS); catcher Parker Morin (College of Southern Idaho); centerfielder Keenyn Walker (Central Arizona CC); RHP/designated hitter Tony Vocca (Yavapai CC, Ariz.); and RHP/outfielder Jackson Goulder (Paradise Valley CC, Ariz.).
"I think we've got the guys to do it, especially the recruiting class coming in," said Utah third baseman Trey Nielsen. "From what I know, they're very solid."
Nielsen, a freshman from Skyline High who made the MWC's all-tournament team, acknowledged the move to the Pac-12 played a big part in his decision to sign with the Utes.
"It's pretty awesome," he said.
Sophomore pitcher Brock Duke agrees.
"This is taking things to a whole other level this next year," he said. "We're just real excited for everything. The teams we get to play, the places we get to travel."
Duke, though, is looking most forward to one Pac-12 meeting in particular — Oregon State. His younger brother, Adam, pitches for the Beavers.
"They come down here next year so we get to play against each other in Salt Lake and we're looking forward to it," Brock Duke said. "Hopefully we'll get matched up against each other and it'll be a fun day for the family."
The brothers, who excelled at Spanish Fork High, have spoken about a "Duke against Duke" pitching duel and are excited about the possibility.
Brock, however, knows Utah's move to Oregon State's league won't be all fun and games. It'll be a challenge.
"We know that nothing's going to be given to us," he said. "We are going to work harder and earn everything that we get playing all these great teams week after week."
To help prepare for the transition, Kinneberg said last season's schedule was toughened by design. Utah faced California, Arkansas, Texas A&M and Baylor in the preseason.
Utah baseball at a glance
Biggest advantage: Spring Mobile Ballpark gives the Utes a venue that Kinneberg said was a favorite in the MWC. He has no fears or qualms about showing the Pac-12 what Utah has to offer. The Utes invested in having the playing surface upgraded.
Biggest challenge: The schedule. All but two of Utah's league foes have participated in the NCAA regionals over the past two seasons.
Number: 26. The Pac-10 has won more NCAA baseball titles than any other conference, two more than the Big 12 (10), SEC (8) and Big Ten (6) combined.
Coach Bill Kinneberg says: "I know right off the top that we have as big a challenge as anybody in the country to make this move."6 comments on this story
Leaders of the Pac: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon State, Stanford and UCLA all reached the NCAA regionals in 2011. UCLA won the Pac-10 regular season title, ending a run of four straight championships by ASU.
Bottom line: Talk about an uphill climb. Moving from Mountain West Conference baseball to the Pac-12 is an extremely tall order. Until Utah's depth improves, the degree of difficulty will remain high.
Pac-12 baseball programs: Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington, Washington State.
Scholarship award type: Equivalency
NCAAscholarship max limit: 11.7
Utah actual award, 2010-11: 11.69