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Tuesday, June 27, 2006 | This is the time of year when University of San Diego baseball coach Rich Hill, a surfer at heart, holds his breath. He won’t be able to exhale until the fall semester classes begin.

David Blaine could learn a few tricks from him.

Hill is waiting to see how many drafted Toreros opt to return to school in 2007. The count will say much about USD’s chances to become the first San Diego school to advance to the College World Series.

You may have noticed the College World Series, which began in mid-June in Omaha, Neb., didn’t end until Monday night with the final game of a best-of-three series between Oregon State and North Carolina. For too long, the college baseball season in San Diego has ended in late May with the regular season or early June with the opening games of the NCAA regionals.

If Pepperdine, a West Coast Conference rival of USD, can win an NCAA title (1992) and Cal State Fullerton, a state school like San Diego State, can win an NCAA title (three, actually), San Diego’s two colleges should be able to find their way to Omaha without benefit of a road map.

But USD didn’t think big under now retired coach John Cunningham, a solid baseball man. It is now under Rich Hill, who in his eighth season in 2006 guided the Toreros to their third NCAA tournament appearance in the last five seasons.

“We’ve had a solid group of guys here who have propelled us into the NCAA Tournament,” Hill said. “We’re looking for that next group of guys who can take us to the next level and the College World Series.”

And SDSU didn’t prod former Aztecs coach Jim Dietz into recruiting San Diego talent while he instead hunted for talent and wildlife in Oregon and Washington, his hunting and fishing stomping grounds.

SDSU coach Tony Gwynn, who just finished his fourth season, early on did too good of a job recruiting local high school talent. He landed players such as Matt Bush and Henry Sanchez of Mission Bay and Sean O’Sullivan of Valhalla, but those high draft picks were intent on signing pro contracts and never played for the Aztecs.

He might have the right formula now. Eastlake’s Nick Romero was an Aflac high school All-American that enrolled at SDSU and earned second-team All-Mountain West Conference honors as a freshman in 2006. He’ll be back for at least two more years before he’s eligible for the draft again.

SDSU could have become an NCAA power by now with the right vision and leadership. Cal State Fullerton didn’t start a program until 1964, but the Titans made their first CWS in 1975 and have been a national power since then. This season marked the Titans’ 14th CWS trip under three coaches, including two stints by former coach Augie Garrido (now at Texas).

At this point USD is closer to the CWS than SDSU. But if developing talent can be measured by draft picks, both programs are closer to a CWS trip than you might think.

In 2006, USD set a school record with six players drafted. SDSU set a school record with nine players drafted. What they need now is more quality to go with quantity among their draft picks.

“Our program is about development,” Hill said. “Our philosophy is we want our players to develop on and off the field. We offer them intense training and a great education. We want them to develop so they have a chance at their dream to play in the Major Leagues. We want players with that dream.”

From the 2006 draft, USD has lost junior pitcher Josh Butler, junior shortstop Steve Singleton and high school recruit Daniel Garcia to pro contracts. Butler was a second-round pick by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Singleton an 11th-rounder by the Minnesota Twins and Garcia an eighth-rounder by the Florida Marlins.

Hill is still holding his breath on junior pitcher Nate Boman, ninth-round choice by the Los Angeles Angels; junior second baseman Keoni Ruth, a 17th-round pick by the Chicago Cubs; junior catcher Jordan Abruzzo, a 39th-round pick by the Boston Red Sox; and junior pitcher Anthony Slama, a 39th-rounder by the Minnesota Twins.

Boman, a Patrick Henry High alumnus, may be a key to next season’s success. A left-hander with big potential, he was the 282nd player drafted overall despite missing his junior season in 2006 while rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

Boman is pitching this summer in the Cape Cod League and everyone hopes he shows he’s recovered. But if Boman pitches too well, the Angels might come up with Boman’s asking price of a bonus in the mid-six figures – money that is worthy of a high draft pick.

Abruzzo, a second-team All-WCC pick from El Capitan High, and Slama are expected to return next year, but Ruth, a first-team All-WCC pick, is leaning toward signing with the Cubs.

Hill lost Garcia from his recruiting class, but his top two local recruits, All-CIF Player of the Year A.J. Griffin of Grossmont and first-team All-CIF pick James Meador of Ramona, will be on campus in the fall.

Until then, Rich Hill, who is more comfortable holding his breath in the surf than a tank of water, will continuing auditioning for David Blaine’s next TV stunt.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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