LOS ANGELES -- How good is this USC baseball team? That's a question a lot of Trojans fans are asking right now, as the team is off to its best start in over 20 years with a 7-1 record.
A large part of that answer could be revealed this weekend, as the Trojans travel to North Carolina for a three-game series with the Tar Heels, a team that finished 5th at the 2011 College World Series and is currently ranked among the top 10 teams in the nation.
Despite the fast start, there is a natural tendency to "wait-and-see" with the Trojans, a program that is as proud as any in college sports with 12 national titles but had seen a downturn in recent years, one which led to the firing of head coach Mike Gillespie and the short tenure of Chad Kreuter.
Second-year head coach Frank Cruz -- who was an assistant coach at USC from 1993 to 1996 -- has made it a priority to re-establish the connection between the current Trojans team and the rich history of the program. Cruz has been actively involved with the Trojan baseball alumni club, has hired former USC players on his staff and he makes it a point to get his current players to understand the legacy that is involved when they put on the Trojans uniform.
"In the past I think we always knew about the national titles and the history but coach Cruz does a great job of making it tangible," senior pitcher Andrew Triggs said. "The tradition of USC baseball means a lot to him and he does a great job of making sure we understand who we are representing when we're on the field."
Triggs is a major part of the reason why the team has gotten off to such a fast start to the 2012 season as the Friday night pitcher in the rotation. Triggs is 2-0 in two starts with a 1.93 ERA and 14 strikeouts after leading the team in wins, ERA and strikeouts in 2011. He was selected in the 24th round of the 2011 major league baseball draft by the San Francisco Giants and was not expected to return to the team this year.
"I was ready to move on last summer," Triggs said. "I had packed up, got rid of all my furniture and had driven back home to Nashville to get ready for the next stage of my career."
The ability to return to USC and work toward an MBA degree helped lure Triggs back to campus, as he is three-year All-Academic Pac-12 honoree who graduated magna cum laude with a degree in political science. His return was certainly a pleasant surprise for the Trojans, much like Matt Barkley returning for his senior season on the football team.
"Andrew Triggs was our biggest recruit this year," Cruz said. "We didn't have depth with our starting rotation so his return had a huge impact on us."
Pitching has been a major area of emphasis for Cruz, as he went out this past offseason and lured pitching coach Dan Hubbs from California. Hubbs is a former All-American pitcher at USC (1991-93) who helped guide the Golden Bears program to the College World Series in 2011.
In addition to Triggs, the Trojans have also received solid pitching early in the 2012 season from senior Ben Mount (1-0, 2.08 ERA, 13 strikeouts), senior Brandon Garcia (0-0, 5.59 ERA and eight strikeouts) and freshman Stephen Tarpley (0-0, 3.72 ERA and 16 strikeouts).
"We're getting good starting pitching right now," Triggs said. "It's nothing out of the ordinary that we're doing. We're throwing strikes, we're going deep in our starts and that's allowing us to have a fresh bullpen. Our team is also hitting the ball, playing fundamentals. It's vintage Frank Cruz, stealing bases, moving guys over, it's not rocket science. Coach Cruz learned under coach Gillespie so he knows what you need to do in order to be successful."
The road back to college baseball prominence will not be an easy one for the Trojans -- the Pac-12 conference is expected to be strong once again and USC will face a schedule that was ranked as the second toughest in the nation.
"We have regional expectations this year," Cruz said. "We want to get to the regionals. The main goal here at USC is always to get to Omaha but you've got to get to the dance first. Those expectations are not far-fetched."