By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press Senior Writer
It was a surprisingly short and sudden trip from Omaha to Whoa-maha for UCSB baseball coach Andrew Checketts.
His Gauchos were the darlings of college baseball in 2016, advancing to their first College World Series when their third-string catcher hit a walk-off, grand-slam home run.
But they nearly all played like third-stringers last year, finishing in a tie for last place in the Big West Conference.
Nobody was itching more to start a new journey last week than Checketts, who reopened workouts for a program that was recently evaluated by D1 Baseball to be the nation's 38th best.
Three NCAA Tournament berths in the last five seasons, after all, is a pretty good batting average for a coach. His incoming recruiting class, meanwhile, was ranked No. 19 last week by Collegiate Baseball and No. 22 two weeks ago by Baseball America.
"As a coach, I live for this piece of it," he said of the fall workouts. "You do feel like that with the way college athletics is going, where you get to do less and less coaching.
"It's fun when you're able to go out and work with the guys ... Be back on the field with them."
It's especially fun when some of his best guys are actually able to show up. Injuries relegated both his ace pitcher, Noah Davis, and his heir apparent, Jack Dashwood, to spectator status for last year's fall drills.
Dashwood, a 6-foot-6 freshman who is coming off Tommy John elbow surgery, was giving Checketts flashbacks to former UCSB star Justin Jacome last week. He's competing for one of the weekend starting jobs.
"I got to watch Jack throw off flat ground - that really stood out," Checketts said of last week's workouts. "I compare Dash to Jacome because he's this big, giant lefthander who has command on both sides of the plate, as well as a good pedigree and history of winning.
"He's close to being able to get up on the mound for the first time since his surgery and he should be able to throw competitively by the end of the fall. He's on pace to being able to go opening weekend if he doesn't hit any bumps."
The Gauchos' two best infielders, junior All-Big West shortstop Clay Fisher and redshirt freshman Andrew Martinez, are also both returning from Tommy John surgery. Their absence left a big hole in the middle of UCSB's defense last season.
"Clay is supposedly cleared to swing the bat within the month," Checketts said. "He started playing catch a couple of weeks ago and I think he's going to be ready to go opening day.
"Seeing Clay and Dash out here is definitely encouraging - and a healthy Noah Davis, too."
Davis, the Gauchos' No. 1 starting pitcher, took a long break after the 2016 College World Series to give his injured foot time to heal. He came back barely in time to pitch last spring, posting a 7-4 record with an earned run average of 4.63.
"We need Noah to make a jump with his command," Checketts said. "The foot injury slowed him down. We missed some development time with him and it showed last year.
"It was good for him to go out this summer and get some extra innings, and being able to throw this fall is really big for him and our team."
Davis posted an ERA of 2.83 in this summer's five appearances with the Cotuit Kettleers of the elite Cape Cod League. D1 Baseball named him as the No. 22 prospect coming out of that league.
But he wasn't the only Gaucho to gain the spotlight because of a bright summer.
Baseball America rated sophomore Chris Lincoln as the No. 1 prospect in the West Coast League after he struck out 36 batters in 33 1/3 innings. Senior Steven Ledesma made the All-Alaska Team with a 1.80 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 20 innings, while junior Kevin Chandler made the All-New England League team with a 2.45 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 29 1/3 innings.
The MVP of that league was actually Tommy Jew, a Gaucho outfielder who batted .295 with four home runs and 30 RBIs in 52 games as a freshman. He did even better during his 32-game summer stint with the Mystic Schooners by hitting .328 with eight homers. Baseball American ranked him as that league's No. 5 prospect.
"He's definitely a leading candidate for one of those first three spots in our batting order," Checketts said.
So is his outfield mate, Armani Smith, who was tabbed by Baseball America as the No. 5 prospect coming out of the Alaska Summer League. His batting average with the Gauchos dropped more than 100 points to .285 by the end of last spring, but Checketts is expecting a bounce-back season for his 6-foot-3 and 195-pound sophomore.
"I have faith in Armani," Checketts said. "He hit .470 all throughout high school and it was the first time in his life that he'd ever struggled. He's an awesome, mature kid - to me, he's an old soul - and a real hard worker."
An emerging Gaucho in that sophomore class, meanwhile, is Eric Yang, last year's third-string catcher. He had a breakout summer with the Medford Rogues of the Great West League, batting .360 with 27 RBIs.
"He's the frontrunner for that job," Checketts said. "He's got the ability to spray the ball a bit and hit for some average. And by the end of last year, he was our best defender at that position.
"His arm strength and his throwing accuracy really improved, as well as his ability to receive and block.
"We really trust him."
He also has faith that D1 Baseball is correct with its ranking of the Gaucho program.
"I feel like we've got enough raw talent to go out and compete," he said. "Now we have to go out and coach them."
And it is now the time of that season.