CAL

Coach: David Esquer, 11th season (287-265-2).

2009 record: 24-29 overall, 9-18 Pac-10, ninth place.

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2008.

Opener: Today vs. Southern Utah 1:30 p.m.

Schedule: www.calbears.com.

One to watch: OF/1B Mark Canha might be the best all-around hitter in the Pac-10. Canha had a breakout sophomore season, batting .366 with 12 home runs and 43 RBI and figures to be the latest Cal high-round draft pick in June.

Best home series: April 1-3 vs. Arizona. Cal's NCAA hopes could rest on this one.

Inside pitch: With just three starters back, the Bears will need more surprises like the ones they got last season from Canha and sophomore LF Danny Oh (.303). ... The pitching staff is deep, with the return of the top four starters and most of the bullpen. ... Sophomore RHP Dixon Anderson had a breakout summer, being named the No. 2 prospect in the Northwoods League with a 1.61 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 56 innings.

Bottom line: After reaching the NCAA tournament in 2008, the Bears took a step back as their young pitchers developed. Pitching now is a strength, although the group will need huge growth for Cal to reach the NCAA tournament because of a grueling nonconference schedule and too many question marks in the lineup.


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STANFORD

Coach: Mark Marquess, 34th season (1,356-694-7).

2009 record: 30-25 overall, 13-14 Pac-10, sixth place.

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2008.

Opener: Today vs. Rice, 5:30 p.m.

Schedule: www.gostanford.com.

One to watch: LHP Brett Mooneyham made huge strides as a freshman to emerge as a No. 1 starter by season's end. The 6-foot-5 left-hander has command issues (54 walks in 671/3 innings) but also struck out 72 batters and held opponents to a .204 average.

Best home series: May 27-29 vs. Arizona State. This could settle the Pac-10 race.

Inside pitch: Mooneyham and sophomore Jordan Pries (4-4, 4.62) rate among the top starting tandems in the nation. The closer role, filled by top-10 draft pick Drew Storen last season, could go to heralded freshman Mark Appel (no relation to women's basketball star Jayne). ... The offense must replace several big bats lost to graduation or the draft, including NFL-bound Toby Gerhart. ... 2B Colin Ward was an all-star game starter in the prestigious Cape Cod League last summer.

Bottom line: The Cardinal figured to experience growing pains last season after a surprise trip to the College World Series in 2008. The squad is still young, several freshmen will be counted on heavily, but a trip to Omaha isn't out of the question.

SAN JOSE STATE

Coach: Sam Piraro, 23rd season (726-540-6).

2009 record: 41-20, 15-7 Western Athletic Conference, first place.

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2002.

Opener: Today at Saint Mary's, 2 p.m.

Schedule: www.sjsuspartans.com.

One to watch: CF Jason Martin missed most of the fall with a broken hand, but the 5-foot-9 junior had a .488 on-base percentage last season. He batted .377, drew 26 walks and was hit by pitch 25 times.

Best home series: April 16-19 vs. New Mexico State. A huge series for WAC seeding.

Inside pitch: Replacing seven players from the squad that won the WAC regular-season title will be a challenge. . . . The top returnees are Martin, 3B Corey Valine (.387) and 1B Danny Stienstra (.337). . . . Piraro calls freshman SS/P Zack Jones his "first legit" two-way player in his 23 seasons.

Bottom line: The Spartans were heartbroken when 41 wins and a regular-season conference title didn't result in an NCAA bid. The young team will be competitive but probably is headed for a second-tier finish.

SAINT MARY'S

Coach: Jedd Soto, 7th season, (135-158-2).

2009 record: 28-27 overall, 9-12 West Coast Conference, sixth place.

Last NCAA tournament appearance: Has never qualified.

Opener: Today vs. San Jose State, 2 p.m.

Schedule: www.smcgaels.com.

One to watch: 3B/1B Troy Channing emerged as one of the top players in the nation as a freshman last spring, hitting .379 with 20 home runs and 75 RBI to become the third triple crown winner in WCC history. The Foothill High product had 26 multihit games last season.

Best home series: April 16-18 vs. USF. This is the league opener for the Gaels.

Inside pitch: No team in the league has three hitters like Channing, C Ryan Mulligan (.335) and OF Justin Fazio (.302). The projected lineup accounted for 27 homers last season, 20 by Channing. ... In an effort to beef up its schedule, SMC plays just 18 home games and has trips to Tulane and Southern Mississippi. ... Brandon Berl, the closer last season, anchors a revamped rotation.

Bottom line: The Gaels are coming off their second winning season in 19 years and have a marquee player in Channing, but a .500 or better finish will be difficult with a challenging nonconference schedule (33 games against teams with winning records in 2009) and so many new faces on the pitching staff.

SANTA CLARA

Coach: Mark O'Brien, ninth season (218-224).

2009 record: 19-34 overall, 6-15 West Coast Conference, eighth place.

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 1997.

Opener: Today vs. Nevada, 6 p.m.

Schedule: www.santaclarabroncos.com.

One to watch: C/3B/LF Tommy Medica. The former Team USA catcher is a career .361 hitter whose junior season was cut short after nine games because of a shoulder injury. He was hitting .429.

Best home series: April 1-3 vs. Portland. The opening series in WCC play.

Inside pitch: The Broncos have significant holes to fill in the lineup, although Medica and C/1B Geoff Klein (.379) are a dangerous 1-2 punch. ... RHP Nate Garcia (7-5, 4.33) returns as the top starter for the second straight year. ... RHP Thain Simon, a freshman All-American in 2008, is expected to miss the season with an arm injury.

Bottom line: Last season SCU was expected to challenge for its first regional berth since 1997 before injuries derailed everything. There aren't nearly the expectations with this young squad.

USF

Coach: Nino Giarratano, 12th season (308-317).

2009 record: 28-28 overall, 12-9 West Coast Conference, third place.

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2006.

Opener: Today at Pacific, 6 p.m.

Schedule: www.usfdons.com.

One to watch: RHP Matt Hiserman was a tough-luck 4-6 last season splitting time as a weekend starter and closer. The junior posted a team-leading 3.43 ERA and averaged nearly a strikeout an inning and was named the WCC pitcher of the week three times.

Best home series: April 30-May 2 vs. San Diego. The Toreros are favored to win the league.

Inside pitch: The Dons have 23 of 32 players back from last year's squad. That includes 13 pitchers, led by Hiserman and all-conference RHP Doug Murray (9-0, 3.77). . . . 3B Stephen Yarrow was fourth in the WCC with 13 home runs last season.

Bottom line: USF is poised for a return to the NCAA tournament with so many returners from the group that missed the WCC title by two games last spring. Hiserman and Murray anchor the league's deepest staff but need help from an offense that is breaking in four first-time starters, including all three outfielders.

— LAURENCE MIEDEMA