Dirtbags head coach Eric Valenzuela believes his team can reach the 2020 NCAA regionals, but whether that potential is fulfilled depends on the team’s ability to handle the challenges of its upcoming schedule.
“To me, [we are] a regional caliber type team with what we’ve done to this point,” Valenzuela said. “What happens come [the season-opener] Friday and beyond, that remains to be seen.”
Make no mistake, although the first several games of the season don’t matter in terms of the Big West Conference standings, they are still loaded with exciting matchups against powerhouse opponents.
“When you’re at a place like this, every non-conference matchup is unbelievable,” Valenzuela said. “You got two teams in the top-20, one team ranked in the top-5. You got Cal who has the  national player of the year Golden Spikes award winner.”
When Long Beach opens its non-conference schedule against Cal on Valentine’s day, it will kick off a string of tough tests lasting all the way until Big West play. Traversing those tough tests will accomplish something incredibly important; It will bring excitement for Dirtbags’ baseball back to Long Beach.
The implications for community pride will be especially heavy during the final weekend of the non-conference schedule when the Dirtbags travel to Goodwin Field to play its biggest rival, Cal State Fullerton. Although the teams are in the same conference, the two foes face off in an annual non-conference series, and 2020 will be the last year of that tradition.
“Obviously, for the fans, Fullerton is almost [like] Ohio State vs. Michigan,” Valenzuela said. “We’re gonna embrace that.”
The Dirtbags begin conference play March 27, which determines the Big West Conference standings, with the conference champion receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Dirtbags and Cal Poly tied for second in the Big West Preseason Coaches Poll behind, you guessed it, Fullerton.
The first nine games of the conference schedule are against the three teams that finished at the bottom of the preseason poll: UC Davis, UC Riverside, and CSUN. Although the matchups provide an obvious opportunity for the Dirtbags to start off strong, Valenzuela highlights the importance of respecting those opponents.
“We want to be a program that doesn’t even care about who your opponent is,” Valenzuela said. “Once you start thinking ‘well Davis is this and Riverside is this,’ that’s when you’re gonna play bad baseball, which will then get you in a funk when you play the next week against an Irvine or a Fullerton.”
Indeed, those nine games are immediately followed by Fullerton on the Dirtbags’ conference schedule. The series between the historic rivals will be played in Long Beach at Blair Field.
“We’re gonna be aggressive [against Fullerton] and I’m gonna coach aggressive,” Valenzuela said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
Fullerton swept the Dirtbags in the season series last year, making the Dirtbags particularly hungry for a sweep at Blair Field in 2020.
“When it’s Fullerton week, our guys are gonna be a little extra fired up and so will the coaches,” Valenzuela said.
If the Dirtbags can be successful in its first 12 conference games, they will likely be in serious contention for a conference title. Whether Valenzuela’s high hopes for his team will come to fruition remains to be seen, but with important matchups from start to finish in the 2020 season, it’s sure to be an interesting year.
“I feel like this could be a special year,” Valenzuela said, “but then again, we gotta wait to see what happens.”
The Dirtbags open the 2020 season at Blair Field on Feb. 14 against Cal at 6 p.m.