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Archive for Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Coach makes Wright choice for his career

May 31, 2006

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If Kansas University baseball coach Ritch Price had his way, Rob Cooper might well be headed to Corvallis, Ore., for an NCAA Tournament regional - as part of Price's coaching staff.

As it is, Cooper might be in the opposing dugout.

Cooper, second-year head coach at Wright State, was an assistant coach at Sacramento City College five years ago when Price, then head coach at Cal Poly, offered him a job.

"It was something I really wanted to do," Cooper said. "I really wanted to go to Cal Poly, but at that point in my life : my wife and I had just had our first child. I just couldn't afford to go at that time."

Price hasn't forgotten.

Monday, after KU and WSU learned they would join Hawaii and host Oregon State in the Corvallis regional, the coaches took part in a conference call. Price and Cooper joined in early and had a few minutes to catch up.

"I was going to wait until I saw him, but he came on early," Cooper said. "He said, 'I tried to hire you five years ago. It looks like you made the right decision.'"

The Raiders (32-25) will face top seed and host Oregon State (39-14) at 7 p.m. Friday at Goss Stadium. Second-seeded Kansas (42-23) will tangle with No. 3 seed Hawaii (43-15) at 2 p.m.

The KU-Hawaii winner will meet the WSU-OSU winner at 3 p.m. Saturday. Friday's losers will meet at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Wright State earned an automatic bid to the NCAAs after winning the Horizon League, but the Raiders still sweat out Selection Monday.

The team gathered to watch the selection show on ESPN and grew increasingly nervous as the brackets rolled by without mention of WSU.

"Corvallis was one of the last brackets to come up, and our guys : some of them were like, 'Are we really going to get in? Are they going to take this thing away from us?'" Cooper said with a laugh. "They went to a commercial break, and I heard some of the guys talking. I had to tell them, 'Guys, we're definitely in.' It was funny. It wasn't pins and needles, but for a group of guys who had never experienced it before, it felt like it."

Cooper is playing up the underdog angle for his fourth-seeded squad.

"There's no question we're the underdog, but our guys are excited to have the opportunity to keep playing," he said. "One thing we talked about is, just keep doing what you did to get to regionals, just have fun and keep playing. Our guys are so excited for the opportunity to keep playing. Most people in Kansas don't know where Wright State is. People in Hawaii have never heard of Wright State. The thing I challenged our guys with was, win, lose or draw, this weekend, when we walk out of Corvallis, I want people to know where Wright State is."

For the record, it's in Dayton, Ohio.

And though that's a long way from Corvallis, it's a trip Cooper doesn't mind making.

"I'm sure our administration is disappointed. They wanted to have a closer regional," Cooper said. "But if any of our players said they were disappointed to be going to Corvallis, they'd be lying to you. You have to understand, the group of guys we have on this team, prior to this season, the majority of them never finished over .500. If you told them the game was going to be in Iceland, they'd be, 'OK, let's go. Let's play, guys.'"

Wright State's standout is pitcher Joe Smith, who boasts a 3-0 record, 0.75 earned-run average and 13 saves.

Not bad for a guy who was cut by the Raiders' previous coaching staff.

"We let him walk back on," Cooper recalled. "He threw overhand. When we got here, by sheer luck, what we were doing was dropping some other guys down. We said, 'These guys can't pitch. Let's drop 'em down sidearm and see what they can do.' We did that with him, and six months later he was throwing 88, 93 mph, fastball, slider, change. We can put him up with some of the best in the country. If we're in the game in the late innings, we like our chances with him."

Offensively, the Raiders count on catcher Aaron Garcia (.325, 3 home runs, 35 RBIs), right fielder Amin Abuselah (.327, 7 home runs, 37 RBIs) and second baseman Ross Oeder (.377, 1 home run, 26 RBIs).

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