Back in December, when the University of Hawaii announced it would be joining the Big West Conference in 2012, its baseball coach, Mike Trapasso, was the happiest guy on campus.
Be assured he would be bouncing-off-the-dugout-walls ecstatic if only membership had been operational this season.
“If we were in first place in the Big West with one weekend to go and finished first or second, I think we’d be (discussing) which regional we’d be going to right now,” Trapasso said yesterday.
Instead, in this, their penultimate season in the Western Athletic Conference, the front-running Rainbows (30-21, 15-5 WAC) know they must win the conference tournament next week or put their bats away.
Because in WAC baseball second place invariably means first left out.
As UH’s departure from the WAC nears after a more-than-30-year association, much of the focus has been on what it will mean for football, which goes into the Mountain West. But some of the biggest winners will be in the sports that move to the Big West. Count baseball as among, if not atop, them.
“In bad years, the Big West is a two-bid (NCAA tournament) league,” Trapasso said. And in good ones … well, it can — and has — propelled as many as four members into the postseason.
Consider that the Big West has placed 15 teams in the NCAAs over the past five seasons. The WAC has landed six.
The ’Bows, in 2006, were the last at-large team from the WAC to crack the tournament. Last year, not even regular-season titlist — and 2008 national champion — Fresno State, a 37-win team, could parlay that pedigree into an at-large berth when UH won the conference tournament and automatic bid.
This year is a “down” season for the Big West, which does not hold a tournament. Depending on how second-place UC Irvine (34-13) closes out, the Big West could still place two teams in the NCAA tournament. No. 9 Cal State Fullerton (36-14) is a postseason shoo-in.
The WAC, meanwhile, is strictly a one-bid league unless somebody knocks off No. 20 Fresno State (36-11) in the conference tournament next week in Mesa, Ariz.
Nothing against the WAC, you understand … well, maybe a little. Traditionally, Big West teams have scheduled tougher and it has buoyed their postseason resume. Part of it is being located in a baseball hotbed. A larger part is being competitive. Meanwhile in the WAC, except for two or three teams, nonconference schedules more often resemble pastry trays.
It is conjecture, of course, but If UH was in the Big West this season, the ’Bows would likely be one of four teams in the top 60 for Ratings Percentage Index. Without UH this year, only Fresno State would be in the top 75 for the WAC.
Once they manage to get into the NCAA tournament, WAC teams have usually done well, witness the ’Bows having gotten to a regional final and Fresno’s national title. But just getting their cleats in the door is the problem.
“Being in the Big West is something that we’ll definitely be excited about in another year, but we’re not there right now,” Trapasso said. “So, unfortunately, we’re still fighting for our lives.”
And, counting the seasons until a better one begins.
Reach Ferd Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org.