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FERD'S WORDS


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Ducks are flying high as rebirth hits season 3

By Ferd Lewis

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 02:07 a.m. HST, Feb 18, 2011



In the tattered, shoestring budget world of college baseball, the University of Hawaii opens its season tonight against the equivalent of a Fortune 500 team.

While other programs aim to get to Omaha, site of the College World Series, the well-heeled Oregon baseball program was reborn with the avowed goal, officials said, of being the first to actually make money on the way there.

In short, the Ducks were envisioned as a team to make both the school and its billionaire benefactor, Nike's Phil Knight, proud in its multicolor-schemed uniform grandeur.

To understand the dynamics at work here you should know that a Ducks baseball program that was closed down after the 1981 season had laid fallow for 27 years. Rarely was there a peep of regret about being the only Pac-10 school without baseball.

But within a month of rival Oregon State celebrating back-to-back national championships in 2007, Oregon suddenly declared that it would field a team again.

Not just any round-up-a-bunch-of guys-with-gloves outfit, either. But a program with untethered ambition and all the trimmings: a new, state-of-the-art ballpark, marquee coach, top-drawer recruits.

It was set up to be a team that would leap off the drawing board and, in an handful of years, be competing for national championships and positive cash flow.

Two-time national coach of the year George Horton was lured away from his alma mater, Cal State Fullerton, nearly doubling his reported $280,000 salary plus a lucrative bonus package. Assistants were hired for what some schools, including UH, paid their head coaches.

Oregon's first recruiting class included nine players who were taken in the MLB draft.

From a parking area near Autzen Stadium quickly rose a $20 million ballpark complete with luxury boxes that would do a pro team proud. And, in fact, the Eugene Emeralds have moved in during the summer.

It is called PK Park, which the university says is a tribute to Pat Kilkenny, a former athletic director and insurance mogul who contributed a reported $4 million toward its construction, although the rumor persists that it is meant to be Mr. Nike.

When the ballpark was in the planning, legend has it the Ducks used a private plane to jet around the country studying the best collegiate stadiums from which to draw ideas.

In two years the Ducks went from start-up to an NCAA Regional team and a Top 25 finish. Their turnaround from a 14-42 debut in 2009 to 40-24 in 2010 was the second-biggest NCAA single-year reversal in more than a decade.

What the Ducks have done heading into their third season of baseball is remarkable. "Yet," UH coach Mike Trapasso notes, "it is not surprising when you combine those resources with a great coach."

The season that opens tonight at Les Murakami Stadium is calculated to be the Ducks' breakthrough campaign when the confluence of wealth, ideas and talent comes impressively together.

That first-year recruiting class is now beginning its junior year and two subsequent crops have also been rated in the top 10 nationally.

UH, which defeated Oregon in three out of four games last season, is contracted to see the Ducks every year through 2014. To keep beating them would, of course, be a richly rewarding experience.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@staradvertiser.com.






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