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Arizona State aims for another Pac-10 crown

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Coaches may change, but some things stay the same.

At least that is what Arizona State is hoping this season.

The Sun Devils shocked the nation a few months ago when they forced long-time coach Pat Murphy to resign. Now, the Devils move forward with familiar face Tim Esmay in charge of the program.

ASU has plenty of holes to fill at the plate, but its pitching staff is the reason it once again will win the Pac-10 title. The Devils welcome back staff ace Josh Spence and Seth Blair. They also return sophomore pitcher Mitchell Lambson, who blossomed into one of the nation's premier relievers last season.

Oregon State and UCLA also are expected to make noise this season.

The Beavers are loaded with talent on the mound and may have a productive offense. UCLA, meanwhile, has the conference's top one-two punch on the weekend in Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer. Its offense will determine its fate as the season progresses.

Stanford, Washington State and Arizona also are regional contenders.

HOW THEY STACK UP

1. Arizona State – The Sun Devils certainly have tough holes to fill, but getting back Josh Spence and Kole Calhoun is huge from a leadership and production standpoint.

2. Oregon State – The Beavers will be improved at the plate and also will have a solid pitching staff with sophomore Sam Gaviglio leading the charge.

3. UCLA – The Bruins leave something to be desired at the plate, but have the pitching to be very scary if the offense rises to the occasion.

4. Stanford – The Cardinal has a very talented pitching staff, but the offense must step up if they plan on competing for the Pac-10 title.

5. Washington State – The Cougars only return five position starters, but welcome back a solid one-two punch on the weekend and a talented closer.

6. Arizona – The Wildcats still have much work to do to bounce back from last season, but there's enough talent at the plate to make an NCAA regional.

7. California – The Golden Bears have some questions to answer in what is a very important campaign for coach Dave Esquer's program.

8. Washington – The Huskies likely won't compete for a regional this season, but welcome back six position starters and a solid staff ace in Andrew Kittredge.

9. Southern California – The Trojans finished near the bottom of the standings with a fantastic one-two punch last season. That duo and more are gone this season.

10. Oregon – The Ducks still have much work to do at the plate to take any steps forward in the Pac-10 pecking order.

ALL-CONFERENCE TEAM

C Jay Ponciano, Washington State

1B Mark Canha, California

2B Colin Walsh, Stanford

SS Bryce Ortega, Arizona

3B Stefen Romero, Oregon State

OF Kellen Kiilsgaard, Stanford

OF Adalberto Santos, Oregon State

OF Matt Newman, Arizona State

DH Kole Calhoun, Arizona State

SP Josh Spence, Arizona State

SP Trevor Bauer, UCLA

SP Gerrit Cole, UCLA

RP Mitchell Lambson, Arizona State

RISING STOCK

Oregon State

It wasn't long ago the Beavers were coming off back-to-back national titles. Now, for the first time in three seasons, OSU has a chance to win another national title. The Beavers didn't make an NCAA regional in '08 and didn't advance to a super regional last season. This season, the Beavers welcome back a solid pitching staff with ace pitcher Sam Gaviglio and closer Kevin Rhoderick leading the way. The offense has some question marks but will be fine with the return of six position starters. The Beavers have high expectations for a reason.

FALLING STOCK

California

The Golden Bears can't seem to establish consistency. They appeared to take a huge step forward two seasons ago with a regional berth and a 33-21 record. However, they responded last season with a horrible conference finish and a dismal 24-29 record. The Bears once again are expected to miss an NCAA regional this season. What once was a program primed to turn the tide now is looking for a new identity.

BEST PITCHER

Josh Spence, Arizona State

The Sun Devils had high expectations for Spence entering his junior campaign last season, and the left-handed pitcher exceeded expectations. He also surprised the Devils by returning for his senior campaign. Spence started 15 games last season, threw a pair of complete games and had a 2.37 ERA in 102 2/3 innings. He also struck out 125 and walked 30 and limited opposing teams to a .240 batting average. In addition to his production on the field, Spence also has an important leadership role.

BEST HITTER

Mark Canha, California

The Golden Bears have some uncertainty in some areas, but there's no uncertainty surrounding Canha. The talented junior is coming off a fantastic sophomore campaign. He batted .366 with 17 doubles, one triple, 12 homers and 43 RBIs last season. He also slugged .634 and had a .444 on-base percentage. Additionally, Canha was solid in the field and ended the '09 campaign with a .992 fielding percentage. Cal needs Canha to have another big-time campaign to compete for a regional berth.

REGIONAL CONTENDERS

Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA, Stanford, Washington State

The Pac-10 certainly doesn't have the star power of years past, but there are plenty of teams to watch. Arizona State and Oregon State are the best bets to earn national seeds, with the Sun Devils having the best chance. Even with the turmoil that engulfed the program the past few months, the Devils still return enough key cogs to make a mark on the national stage. OSU also welcomes back several talented players. UCLA is another safe bet to make a regional, and Stanford also is expected to earn an NCAA postseason bid. The regional picture gets tricky after those four. WSU has some key players to replace but welcomes back a talented pitching staff with Chad Arnold and Adam Conley leading the way. Arizona is another team to watch.

QUICK HITS

• Washington State recently received bad news when senior infielder Travis Coulter was declared academically ineligible for the season. Coulter missed last season with an injury and was expected to have a big-time campaign this season. However, that won't happen, as Coulter is unable to play. Two seasons ago, Coulter led the Cougars with a .333 batting average and 11 stolen bases.

• Oregon State will be without talented left-handed pitcher Josh Osich this season. Osich was expected to play a big role for the Beavers, but will miss the season with an arm injury after having Tommy John surgery. Osich made 17 appearances last season and had a 2.05 ERA in 26 1/3 innings. He also struck out 34 and walked 17 and limited teams to a .170 batting average. The Beavers have plenty of talented pitchers, but having Osich would've added another fantastic arm to their overall depth.

• Stanford will be without outfielder Toby Gerhart this season. Gerhart had a sensational campaign on the gridiron and opted to focus on his football career. Gerhart announced he would enter the NFL draft. Gerhart is a tough loss on the diamond, too. He batted .288 with 12 doubles, two triples, seven homers and 36 RBIs last season. He also slugged .475 and had a .392 on-base percentage. Gerhart also was a great fielder.

• Arizona State begins a new era this season with coach Tim Esmay now in charge. Long-time coach Pat Murphy, who spent 15 seasons in charge of the program, previously led the Sun Devils. However, the Sun Devils forced Murphy to resign back in November. Esmay earned head coaching experience at Utah and also coached under former ASU coaches Murphy and Jim Brock. Though the university hasn't announced Esmay will stay on as permanent coach, there's a good chance a solid season would give Esmay the full-time reins. It'll be an interesting campaign for the Devils.

• Washington will usher in new coach Lindsay Meggs this season. Meggs won a national title at Division II Chico State, but now is more known for turning Indiana State into a winning program. Meggs brings great credentials to the table. He also hired an excellent coaching staff by bringing in Dave Nakama from Stanford and Greg Moore from San Francisco. It certainly will take Meggs some time to win big, but the Huskies made an impressive hire in Meggs.