Sophomore left-hander Tyler Anderson fires a pitch against Nevada in a 16-2 win for Oregon earlier this season. - Photo courtesy of Eric Evans

Rapid Ascent

Last season, when coach George Horton was about to usher back the first Oregon baseball team in 28 years, he said the trick was to convince his young team they could compete.

For the players, it was convincing Horton to let go of his past.

The work on both sides has obviously worked: In just the team's second season, Horton — who built a reputation for winning at Cal State Fullerton — has the No. 22 Ducks vying for a spot in the postseason.

Oregon reached the 35-win benchmark with a 4-2 victory over the University of Portland earlier this week, positioning itself for an NCAA at-large bid.

"The great news is that we control our own destiny," Horton said. "We've got seven games left and unless we fall flat on our face, I would be shocked if they don't invite us."

Having Horton at the helm probably helps. He coached at Fullerton for 11 seasons, going to the College World Series six times. The Titans team won the national title in 2004, and he was twice the national coach of the year.

Lured away by the Ducks, Horton built a program from the ground up in just 17 months, starting with 20 freshman on a roster of 35. He had full support of the university, which built an $18 million ballpark in the shadow of Autzen Stadium.

But the Ducks floundered, going 14-42 overall and 4-23 in the Pac-10 last season.

Horton said his team didn't adopt the "culture" of hard work and attitude that he was trying to instill.

"We tried very hard at the end of the first year to change it (the culture) and didn't get rewarded. It was devastating to me because they finally started doing the things I asked them to do and the scoreboard wasn't rewarding us," he said. "That was dangerous because they'll never trust you if you don't start seeing results."

Something intangible was obviously missing. So during Oregon's road trip to open this season in Southern California, the Ducks paid a visit to a sports psychologist.

Horton shakes his head in surprise over what happened next: Several players courageously told him that the team needed him to change his approach. Namely, he had to stop talking about the Titans.

"It's hard, because I use examples from where I came from," he said. "But now I try very hard not to say that word 'Titans' in front of them. Because I'm not a Titan. I'm the Ducks coach now."

Oregon had dropped baseball after the 1980-81 season because of budget constraints. For many years, the Ducks were the only Pac-10 school without baseball.

This season, they are holding their own in the middle of the conference, which is dominated by Arizona State, ranked No. 3 by Baseball America. The only other Pac-10 schools ranked in the poll are Oregon and Washington State at 24.

After being swept in three games by in-state rival Oregon State, the Ducks have won five straight going into a series this weekend against Washington. Oregon is 35-18 overall.

Horton credits the Southern California breakthrough for the team's success,

"From that point forward the relationship has been almost magical. We still have some family feuds and some blowups, some kids going out on their own. But I would say we have a baseball culture here now," he said. "I am very proud of this group. Instead of coaching some young guys who want to be winners, I'm coaching a group of men who are doing the work to be winners."

Catcher Paul Eshleman put it more succinctly: "You've got to believe. We believe."

Whether it will be enough to land the Ducks a postseason bid remains to be seen. The discussion is kind of the elephant in the room.

"You don't want to jinx it, but in my first meeting the very first year we talked about going to the playoffs, going to the World Series," Horton said. "Heck, if you don't talk about the goal, even if the goal is unrealistic, how do you attain it?"

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