After nearly a 10-month-long hiatus, the Long Beach State Dirtbags will once again be returning home to Blair Field.
The athletic department received approval to resume activity Feb. 15 from the Long Beach Health Department, however, athletic director Andy Fee has said that no teams will begin activity until all members are vaccinated.
Dirtbags head coach Eric Valenzuela said that he’s excited to get back on the field once everyone is cleared to play and to work with returning veteran players and new recruits.
“I think having a group like this is really going to help us when we start our conference play,” Valenzuela said. “I feel like these guys, especially the older guys and returners, know that small window of practice and preparation. Having a group like this is really going to help us when we start our conference play.”
Scheduled to begin conference play on March 19 versus the University of Hawai’i, the Dirtbags only have just over a month to practice and communicate on the field as a team.
For most teams, this less than ideal amount of time would pose a major challenge, but Valenzuela said for now he’s only focused on getting the teams the proper amounts of on-field drill reps to be ready by the season start.
“We need this full month to get rolling because that first game is going to be a conference game. We’re going to jump right into this thing and try to win a conference championship,” Valenzuela said. “But I think again, us not being together for this long is also going to make us unite a lot better when we do. I talked to another Division I coach who was my mentor yesterday, and he said, ‘Well I sure as hell don’t want to play you guys.’”
The regular season schedule is slated to consist of a four-game weekend series against each conference opponent.
Luckily for the Dirtbags’ pitching staff, Valenzuela’s time as head coach for the Saint Mary’s Gaels will prove pivotal.
“I coached at Saint Mary’s for six years and we played four game series all the time, so if there’s any coaching staff that is used to the four game series, it’s us,” Valenzuela said. “Luckily enough we have the bodies and enough arms we could spread that out for a little bit. We’re gonna take each game like it’s game seven, but I’m going into tomorrow 1-0.”
Finishing last season with a 10-5 record, the Dirtbags were able to bolster themselves into Baseball America’s top 25 ranking, finishing the abruptly cut season in 12th. The Bags also finished with an overall team ERA of 2.38, a 12th best in the nation.
Sophomore RHP Devereaux Harrison, who pitched 13.2 innings with 18 strikeouts and a 1.32 ERA last season, said that staying in shape during the offseason was made easier by sticking to the coaches’ programs.
“Our coaches did a good job of giving us plans to follow. Obviously we’re going to trust our coaches because they know what they’re talking about and know what is best for us,” Harrison said. “I’ve been working out in the morning, throwing long toss and bullpens, then running right after to make sure my arm is always in the spot.”
With the addition of the recent state-of-the-art Steve Traschel bullpen, funded by the namesake’s alumnus, the Dirtbags’ pitching staff will be looking to take advantage of its newly gifted donation.
Equipped with an all turf field, the project will feature a brand new camera system used in Major League Baseball called Bats that calculates a pitch’s spin axis, velocity and spin rate.
Each of the seven cameras will have 4K resolution capable of capturing up to 120 frames per second. The new 3rd base bullpen, according to Valenzuela, will also be used as a bunting station by the offense.
Valenzuela said that the team will continue to maintain its standards off the field as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage on.
“I think punishment alone is going to be the fact that we don’t get to play if you know that one positive test can potentially shut us down for possibly two weeks, which in our case would be eight games,” Valenzuela said. “Some of these guys are in their fifth year and this could be it for them to lose games, so I really trust that we are going to make good decisions so we can get this thing going.”
Junior utility Chase Luttrell said that he has been challenged the last few months by the restrictions associated with getting to different facilities and doing workouts that he normally would be able to do.
“Finding different guys to throw with has been tough when we kind of have to stay inside of our households. With COVID-19, it’s gonna happen and we’re gonna have to deal with it.,” Luttrell said. “But over the past few weeks we’ve been really careful about everything we’ve done. The team is clean and very healthy, so I think we’re ready to get rolling. It’s looking positive for us.”
According to redshirt junior outfielder Connor Kokx, the team has been communicating via group texts and Zoom calls to get to know each other as best they can.
“We’re definitely getting closer with our new teammates, we just got 10 plus new brothers on our team,” Luttrell said. “I’m excited [that]we’re going to come back on Feb. 15 and finally be one again.”