After 2 decades, Washington State back in NCAA tournament

Jared Prince had to rely on stories from his dad for proof that Washington State was once a premier college baseball program.

What he saw while being recruited by the Cougars in 2005 was the worst team in Pac-10 history.

"I saw the Cougs getting smashed on by the Huskies on my recruiting trip," Prince recalled. "It was kind of a tough sell."

With seniors like Prince, pitcher Matt Way, catcher Greg Lagreid and the players that followed buying into the sales pitch head coach Donnie Marbut presented, the Cougars are no longer the laughingstock of the Pac-10.

This season, they did more than just return Washington State to respectability — they've got the Cougars (31-23, 19-8) back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in nearly two decades, heading to Norman, Okla., to face Arkansas on Friday.

"We had to try and sell Northwest kids on coming to school here, and these seniors, we sold them on that they are the one's driving the bus," Marbut said. "The kids behind you, they'll just keep it at that level."

From 1970 to 1992, the Cougars were among the most dominant programs on the West Coast, finishing first, tied for first or second in the Pac-8 North and Pac-10 North divisions 22 times, all under coach Bobo Brayton.

Thanks to future major leaguers like Ron Cey, John Olerud, Aaron Sele and Scott Hatteberg, Washington State regularly earned or was in the hunt for tournament bids, including a pair of trips to the College World Series.

Then came the slide.

When the Pac-10 did away with divisions in 1999, the Cougars finished eighth or ninth in the nine-team conference in nine of 10 seasons. They went 4-20 in 1999 and failed to win 10 conference games in eight of the 10 years, capped by the 2005 debacle when WSU's only win was a 10-7 victory over UCLA on the next-to-last weekend of the season.

"We just knew that we never wanted to go through that again," said Marbut, who nearly lost his job in 2006 after misrepresenting his academic credentials.

Even last season, signs of a turnaround were tough to find. The Cougars finished with a winning record overall in 2008 (30-26) but still finished last in the Pac-10 (8-16).

2009 didn't start much better.

Playing a schedule that began with seven games against Arkansas and Oklahoma — two teams they'll see this weekend — the Cougars started 1-5 and were 5-11 after dropping a pair of games at Pepperdine.

Finally, the turnaround began. They swept South Dakota State and started Pac-10 play winning two of three at California and against UCLA. They later swept Oregon, Arizona, took two at Oregon State and finished the season with a sweep of Washington.

Way, a Sitka, Alaska, native, became the leader when the Pac-10 season started. Taking the mound in the Friday night opener, Way went 6-2 with a 3.16 ERA against his conference foes.

"The Friday night start is the best job on the team really," said Way, who was 8-4 with a 2.49 ERA overall. "Taking a win on Friday sets the tone for the whole series."

But it wasn't just Way. Prince hit .407 in conference. Reliever Jeremy Johnson went 4-0 with eight saves and finished the regular season 6-1. Sophomore Jay Ponciano started just 14 conference games, but hit .404 and drove in 18 runs.

The Cougars insist they won't be nervous heading into the tournament. They were swept at Arkansas to start the season, but all three games were decided by two runs or less. They split a four-game series with Oklahoma and played the Sooners in Norman last year. They also played Wichita State last year, the fourth team at the regional.

Prince said that after the tournament draw came out, he talked with Daven Harmeling from WSU's basketball team, which surprised everyone a few years ago with an NCAA tournament bid.

"He said, 'Nobody expects you guys to be here,'" Prince recalled. "'You have nothing to lose, and just go out and prove to everybody that you belong here.'"

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