Michael Brandy, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — It's the dawn of a new era for Utah baseball.
When the Utes take the field for their first 2012 practice Friday, they'll do so as a Pac-12 team.
And considering the conference sent eight teams to regionals last year, it's a whole new ballgame for the guys up on the hill.
"Just like everybody in the athletic department we move into a different realm and into different situations," said Utah coach Bill Kinneberg. "Naturally it's very challenging, but on the other hand, it's very exciting for us."
Competing with Arizona, Arizona State, California, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Washington and Washington State has altered Utah's goals.
"Being in this league changes everything. Now we want to be one of those teams that are making a regional every year," Kinneberg said. "Our ultimate goal now is to go to Omaha."
Reaching the College World Series, he added, is now realistic thanks to the Utes' new affiliation.
While it may take some time to fill depth issues with the bullpen and role players on the recruiting trail, Kinneberg is confident Utah's top pitchers and position players are already of Pac-12 caliber. As such, Kinneberg expects the Utes to go "toe-to-toe" with the competition this season — although he acknowledged it'll be a big challenge.
"Each year we hope to get better and better and better," Kinneberg said. "I have no timetable. I just want to compete and be the best we can be."
The Utes went 29-21 overall and 16-7 in league play in their final season in the Mountain West Conference. They're moving on to the Pac-12, however, without a couple of key contributors, including All-America first baseman C.J. Cron and left-handed pitcher Rick Anton. Cron was drafted in the first round by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Anton was taken in the eighth by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"Naturally those two guys are going to be real hard to replace. I don't know if we ever replace C.J.," Kinneberg said. "But I really like this club. I think we have guys on the mound that are going to be very capable of winning on Friday night and Saturday and so forth. So I'm excited about our club."
Despite the loss of Cron and Anton, as well as standouts like second baseman Michael Beltran and pitcher Stephen Streich, Kinneberg noted that the Utes are still a veteran club.
Top returnees include senior outfielder Shaun Cooper, senior shortstop James Brooks, sophomore third baseman Trey Nielsen and junior right-handed pitcher Tyler Wagner. Cooper and Wagner earned first-team All-MWC honors last season, while Brooks and Nielsen were second-team selections.
Juniors Zach Adams, Joe Pond and Brock Duke join Wagner on an experienced pitching staff that also includes sophomore Ben Mordini.
As for the position players, Kinneberg noted that the Utes have a real good nucleus of recruited guys joining the mix. Several are expected to play key roles.
Catcher Parker Morin, a transfer from Southern Idaho, is the biggest recruit offensively and will likely be in the lineup everyday — sometimes at designated hitter or first base. Another CSI transfer, Ryan Cooperstone, is expcted to be in the mix at second base with former Juan Diego star Kody Davis. Another newcomer to watch is first baseman Ethan Leiter, a transfer from Yavapai College.
The Utes open the season Feb. 17-20 at UC Davis. They open Pac-12 play March 16-18 at USC.
Utah's home schedule at Spring Mobile Ballpark includes visits by four teams ranked in preseason top 25 polls — Arizona, Oregon State, UCLA and Washington. The Utes' home opener is March 21 against Sacramento State. The initial Pac-12 home game is set for March 30 against UCLA.
2012 Utah baseball home schedule at Spring Mobile Ballpark
21 — Sacramento State
27 — BYU
30-31 — UCLA
1 — UCLA
3— Salt Lake Bees (exhibition)
5-7 — Arizona
10 — Utah Valley
24 — Southern Utah
27-29 — Washington
11-13 — Oregon State
18-20 — StanfordlabelWord2012 Utah baseball
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