Tuesday, June 2, 2009 | There is a formula to building a perennial NCAA tournament contender in college baseball, and it finally mixed well this year for San Diego State’s baseball program.

The Aztecs, although placed in what was probably the toughest regional in the country, went 1-2 last weekend in their first NCAA trip in 18 years. SDSU fell on Friday to ninth-ranked and eventual regional winner Virginia, beat defending national champion Fresno State on Saturday and then were eliminated Sunday by No. 1-ranked UC Irvine, which subsequently was eliminated by Virginia.

“I don’t think there is any doubt we made our mark this year,” SDSU head coach Tony Gwynn said. “People are now aware of the program and what we’re trying to do and how much we’ve accomplished this year. It’s been great.”

The old formula that didn’t work was recruiting the Pacific Northwest while on hunting and fishing trips, which was the downfall of SDSU baseball at the end of former head coach Jim Dietz’s otherwise memorable career.

It also wasn’t recruiting projected first-round draft picks who planned to take the money and run, which was the downfall of Gwynn’s early years when the baseball Hall-of-Famer succeeded Dietz in 2003.

Gwynn had some impressive signing day recruiting lists in his early classes, including Matt Bush, an Aflac All-American who was California’s all-time hit leader when he came out of Mission Bay High in 2004.

Scoff if you’d like when you consider Bush’s self-inflicted personal problems that derailed his career. Yes, he’s out of baseball since the Padres made him the first pick of the draft, disciplined him for a fight at a bar within a month of the draft, sent him to the Toronto Blue Jays to get rid of the headache and the Blue Jays released him after more incidents.

But consider this: What, if instead of becoming an instant millionaire, the immature kid who needed guidance other than the older brother who took him to the bar where the fight with a bouncer broke out, had tried life as a college student? Then Gwynn would have been guiding him and holding him accountable. It’s was a sad fork in the road for all involved.

But back to my point that Gwynn has found the formula that works for the Aztecs to be an NCAA tournament-caliber program. It starts with finding some players who are disappointed in their draft position or the money offered and they decide to improve their standing coming out after their junior year.

SDSU had two of them contribute as true freshman in 2009 in freshman first baseman Brandon Meredith of Montgomery High and freshman shortstop/pitcher Ryan O’Sullivan of Valhalla High.

Meredith, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound power hitter that stroked two home runs in the Fresno State win, was an All-Mountain West Conference second-team team pick. He was a 15th-round pick that turned down the Tampa Bay Rays. Next year look for him to be more disciplined at the plate and cut down on his strikeouts.

O’Sullivan, an Aflac All-American in high school, contributed at the plate and as a No. 3 starter. He was a 10th-round pick who turned down the San Francisco Giants. Sullivan might even still turn out to be an ace pitcher.

The Giants drafted him as a pitcher, which was one reason he turned them down. He’s not convinced he’s done playing shortstop, so consider if the Giants’ assessment proves to be correct some time in the next two years.

Then you mix in talented high school players that are more interested in college than being 18-years-old living in some a backwater Rookie League town in the middle of nowhere.

Unless were talking millions of dollars as a high draft pick, even pro scouts will admit, off the record, that they’d rather see their son go to college than play on a roster of teammates that aren’t too bright.

The Aztecs roster includes plenty of such players such as sophomore right fielder Corey Vaughn, junior center fielder Pat Colwell, sophomore catcher Matt Parker, freshman left fielder Jomel Torres and freshman catcher Chris Wilson.

Another ingredient are some junior college transfers, and the Aztecs came up with a No. 2 starter that can be next year’s ace with junior Tyler Lavigne (if he doesn’t sign with a team now that he’s draft eligible) of Las Vegas.

Finally, you’ve got to find some unpolished gems, including in your backyard.

The Aztecs hit the jackpot with Stephen Strasburg, their All-American right-hander. He’s about to hit a jackpot of his own — word is agent Scott Boras will be seeking a $50 million deal — as the projected first pick of the draft on June 9. Strasburg wasn’t drafted or recruited heavily out of West Hills High in Santee.

Strasburg is a once-in-a-generation player, but there are plenty of examples of kids who go undrafted and lightly recruited yet end up as Major League ballplayers once they develop during their college career.

SDSU’s young roster is looking forward to mixing its formula together again next year.

“I think it was a great experience to play in a tournament like this since we have a lot of freshman and sophomores coming back next year,” said Parker, a Rancho Bernardo High alum who was 2-for-3 with an RBI against Irvine. “We know what it’s like to make it into the post-season and play in pressure games. Next year we know what we have to do to get back to this point and what we have to do to go to a Super Regional and the College World Series in Omaha.”

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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