SALT LAKE CITY — During the summer of 2010 the University of Utah's campus was alive with excitement over the school's invite to become one of the two new additions to the Pac-10 Conference.
Ute football fans rejoiced that their team would no longer be barred by the BCS. Utah basketball supporters raved about being in the same league as several basketball powers. Athletic director Chris Hill's pockets got deeper, good news for everyone involved.
The move hit Utah baseball coach Bill Kinneberg like a ton of bricks. If the Pac-12 is the "Conference of Champions," Pac-12 baseball is the conference of immortals. The Pac-12 lays claim to 26 NCAA titles. Its nearest competitor, the Big 12, has 10.
USC is Zeus, with 21 trips to Omaha in total. Arizona State is mighty Poseidon, right down to the pitchfork, also with 21 trips to the College World Series. UCLA is like a young Achilles, on the verge of becoming a year-in, year-out contender.
Utah? It has been to the Series once, in 1951.
"I wouldn't call it a shock but I had to take a deep breath," Kinneberg said of the day he heard the news. "This program goes into a different gear now."
At that time, Utah had not posted a winning record since 2002 (the Utes went 29-21 in 2011). In 2009, Utah miraculously won the Mountain West Conference tournament, received an automatic bid to an NCAA regional and won two games. Host Cal State Fullerton brought Utah back to reality, eliminating the Utes with two thrashings, a combined score of 34-5.
Prior to that, the Utes had not made a run to the postseason since 1960 and they've never been to a super regional. Kinneberg talks of a different gear but he knows the program he's headed since 2005 has been sputtering in first for quite some time.
"We may not be in that gear yet, but that gives us an opportunity to up our game," he said. "We are in the premier conference in the country and we will hopefully attract premier players in the country."
Utah's returning players expect the move to help them right away. Senior left fielder Shaun Cooper — a Tucson, Ariz., native who played his freshman year at Arizona — had a solid 2011 as an all-Mountain West Conference selection. He finished the year with a .321 average but wasn't drafted.
Cooper made the move from Arizona because he only saw himself playing as a designated hitter there. He's flourished at Utah and hopes that playing in the Pac-12 will get him and his teammates noticed.
"Myself and a few other guys had a pretty good year but maybe because we were in the Mountain West Conference, we got overlooked," Cooper said. "I'm hoping that these upcoming years, seasons like those don't get overlooked and scouts draft them because they're playing better competition every day.
Apparently, the Pac-12's coaches were looking at the dearth of postseason experience when they picked the Utes to finish 11th out of 11 teams in the preseason poll (Colorado does not field a baseball program), no surprise to Kinneberg.
"We should be picked 11th," he said. "We're the new guy on the block. They don't know much about us and we don't know a whole lot about them either. We haven't been through the grind they have."
Last year, the Utes were picked sixth out of seven in the MWC and finished second. Thus far in 2012 they've kept their heads above water. They took two out of three games from USC on the road to open conference play and stole a game from No. 23 Oregon in Eugene last weekend.
The Utes welcome No. 6 UCLA to Spring Mobile Ballpark for a three-game series that begins tonight and will play four more weekend series against ranked Pac-12 teams before season's end: No. 2 Stanford, No. 8 Arizona, No. 14 Arizona State and No. 22 Oregon State.
This murderer's row of a schedule is a far cry from their Mountain West slate, where not one team is ranked. Redshirt junior right-hander Joe Pond, Utah's likely starter in the series opener, said the Utes aren't overwhelmed by the schedule but their mistakes will be magnified.
"You have to play your best baseball every day to win," Pond said. "The games come down to a single at-bat or a single pitch."
Cooper said despite the traditional one-game-at-a-time approach, he's noticed more motivation throughout the team for Pac-12 games so far.
"It just seems like we have a lot more energy and it seems like we're playing for more when we're playing them," Cooper said.
Kinneberg, who played at Arizona and served as an assistant at Arizona and Arizona State in the 1990s knows his team has only just begun its run through the conference gauntlet, but he wouldn't rather be anywhere else.
"It will be an interesting 24 more games," he said with a smile.
Pac-12 home opener
Utah (7-16, 3-3) vs.
UCLA (17-5, 4-2)
Friday, 6 p.m.
Spring Mobile Ballpark