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Monday, May 18, 2009 | If you’re a college baseball player, you dream of trips to Omaha, Neb., or Cary, N.C.

Omaha, the more familiar name, is home to the College World Series, a destination that has eluded San Diego State and the University of San Diego.

Cary doesn’t have the tradition behind it that Omaha does as a college baseball Mecca, but the suburban Raleigh city is home to USA Baseball.

All-American pitchers Stephen Strasburg of San Diego State and A.J. Griffin of the USD trained with USA Baseball’s national team last year. Former USD pitcher Brian Matusz, the third pick of the draft last year by the Baltimore Orioles, also has trained there.

Now 35 more San Diego collegians are on their way to enjoy the rewards that come with a visit to USA Baseball’s facilities in Cary. Those would be the 35 players on the roster of U.C. San Diego’s baseball team.

The Tritons earned a trip to the NCAA Division II College World Series by winning the West Regional Sunday with a 12-4 win over Sonoma State in Keizer, Ore.

“This is extremely exciting for us,” said UCSD senior second baseman Garrett Imeson, one of the Tritons’ leading hitters with a .348 average. “For me, this has been four years in the making. The last two years we went to the regionals and now we’re going to the World Series.”

The Division II World Series follows the format of the Division I event in Omaha. It matches eight regional champions in a double-elimination tournament. UCSD, ranked No. 2 in the nation entering the regional, opens the tournament Sunday against East Regional champion Dowling College of New York’s Long Island.

Although this is the first time UCSD has advanced to the Division II World Series, the Tritons twice played in the Division III World Series.

The first time was in 1987 when the Tritons were led by catcher Bob Natel, who went on to play with the Montreal Expos and Florida Marlins from 1992 to 1997.

The second was 1994, when they were led by a power-hitting first baseman named Dan O’Brien. He didn’t make it to the big leagues, but O’Brien is now in his 12th year of building big things with the Tritons. He took over the program in 1998 just four years after his playing days.

“It was exciting as a player to make it to the Division III World Series,” O’Brien said. “It was a very rewarding experience, and we’re expecting the same experience for our guys. I’m excited for our guys because I know they’re going to have the time of their lives.”

UCSD (39-13) has gone 6-1 in the post-season after winning the California Collegiate Athletic Association tournament title with three straight wins (the Tritons also won the CCAA regular-season title) and the double-elimination regional with a 3-1 record.

The Tritons don’t have the projected first pick of the draft, such as Strasburg, or even a projected middle-round draft pick, such as Griffin. But what they do have are solid baseball players, including a trio of sophomores drawing interest from the scouts. Although pitcher Tim Shibuya of Jackson, Wyo., pitcher Guido Knudsen of Bonita Vista High and infielder Evan Kehoe of Mira Mesa High are a year away from draft eligibility.

“Most people would be surprised by our talent level,” O’Brien said. “We’re not big, but we’re scrappy and we have scouts looking at our players. We work hard and make you outhustle us.”

The Tritons’ 12-4 win Sunday that clinched the World Series bid was a microcosm of their season. The score was tied 4-4 until UCSD erupted for eight runs in the ninth inning.

During the Tritons’ post-season, UCSD showed it has the nerves to win the close games and the power to turn a game into a laugher.

They opened the CCAA tournament with a 2-1 win over Cal State Dominguez, romped 16-1 past Sonoma State and then eliminated Sonoma State with an 8-7 win.

In the regional, they opened with an 11-10 win over Dominguez Hills and routed Western Oregon 18-3. When they had to get by Sonoma State again, they bounced back from a 4-3 loss with the 12-4 win.

“We definitely have the talent to put up a lot of runs,” Imeson said. “But I think the biggest part of our success is we don’t get caught up in the score. We play the game the same no matter if it’s close or a blowout.”

And, apparently, no matter if the destination is Omaha or Cary.

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

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