April 26, 2001
Four years ago Gaucho baseball was in disarray, as reflected in an 18-31 record.
Key players leaving the school and veteran leaders putting self in front of team had the program on the ropes.
Ever since, construction of a solid foundation has gradually emerged.
One piece was already in place during that disastrous '98 season when freshman Chad Peshke opened his Gaucho career as the starting second baseman.
The following season sophomores Dave Molidor and Jeff Bannon filled in vacancies on the left side of the infield. Molidor made a successful adjustment to third from first base, where he played sparingly as a freshman. Bannon, recruited to play third base, took over at short when the reigning starter, Justin Gemoll, unexpectedly transferred to USC.
Last year redshirt sophomore Tyler Von Schell supplied the final foundation block by taking over at first base.
That foursome has remained firmly intact this season, during which UCSB has compiled a 29-11 record, putting it on pace for its best season in 11 years.
"One thing I did four years ago, I pulled all the freshmen over, took them to the bullpen at practice, and told them what they're seeing right now, the so-called (team) leaders right now, is not how it's done," recalled Coach Bob Brontsema. "I expressed to them that they were the future of the program. They can make a difference in what happens."
"That pretty much became a battle cry -- look toward the future," recalled Bannon during a group interview of all four players after a team practice.
The future is now for this quartet, which represents the heart of the Gaucho lineup. They occupy the No. 3 through No. 6 positions in the batting order, starting with Peshke (.369, 41 RBIs, 45 runs), Molidor (.415, 9 HRs, 51 RBIs, 14 doubles, 43 runs), Von Schell (.343, 14 HRs, 51 RBIs, 11 doubles) and Bannon (.304, 4 HRs, 31 RBIs, 13 doubles).
"These guys kind of feed off each other," Brontsema said. "We felt they could be good, but you never know who will have a good year. They've all put good seasons together, and good teams have that."
No question it's all come together this season.
"I don't know if we specifically (aimed for this year)," said Peshke. "Every year we've improved and tried to do better than last year.
"This is the first year we've realistically got a chance to go to the regionals and beyond."
No one could have foreseen this happening four years ago except for the determination of a handful of freshmen.
"It could have been real easy to go somewhere else after our freshman year," said Peshke, who was heavily recruited out of Redondo Beach High by USC, among other Division 1 schools. "One reason why I didn't go, one of my goals was to make this program better. We want to be one of the reasons the program has turned around."
Von Schell drew a comparison to the reputable Big West programs of Cal State Fullerton and Long Beach State, which perennially make strong bids for the NCAA regionals.
"They have hitting coaches and other coaches working on all the little things, plus the facilities," he began. "I don't want this to sound like I'm complaining. It's really a testament to how good the program and talent level is here. There are (only) two full-time coaches and one grad assistant, and it's incredible to see what they can do with what they have to work with."
Pitching coach Tom Myers drew praise from both Peshke and Von Schell for the recruiting this year's pitching staff.
"We've got eight guys on this team now who would have been good enough to be the No. 1 guy in our freshmen year," Peshke declared.
The hitters acknowledge that pitching puts them on par with the likes of Fullerton and Long Beach, who four years ago "just laughed at us," Peshke said.
UCSB's three-game series with both conference powers are just around the corner, following this weekend's home series against Pacific. Long Beach State visits Caesar Uyesaka Stadium for a nonconference game on Tuesday, then three conference games starting on Friday, May 4. The following week the Gauchos play three at Fullerton.
"I remember during our freshman year being humiliated (by Fullerton and Long Beach)," Molidor said animatedly. "Just getting crushed. I remember hating that feeling. I want to bury them for everything they've done to us."
"It's obvious that Brontsema, who has watched these four players develop and mature, knows what they have meant to the program.
"They've been focused and dedicated," he said. "They've been team and school first. From that perspective I cannot commend this group enough. They've taken what's been around them and developed a camaraderie, a sense of what they have to do to accomplish what they want."
Spend 20 minutes in their inner circle, and the camaraderie is more than evident.
"Weight training at 6 a.m. for four straight years helped build camaraderie," Peshke noted. "All the hard work we've done together -- yoga, karate, swimming at 6 a.m. All the stuff we've done for conditioning."
Camaraderie was a byproduct of four similar personalities who have "blended well together and been a combined leader," Brontsema said. "None of them stands out as vocal, they're all fairly quiet guys who aren't necessarily talkative in terms of leadership qualities."
There's no room for big egos among any of them. These guys know they didn't raise the program alone.
"We have too many good players on this team for anyone to think they're head-and-shoulders above everyone else," Bannon said.
Humility is inbred with this team. Said Molidor: "We're Gauchos. We're scrappers. We haven't proven anything yet. I don't care if we have the (second-highest) batting average in the nation. We gotta win a championship before we can talk."
It adds up to qualities that have commanded the respect of the coach, who says they're "guys maybe I'd hang out with in college, if they'd let me."
Close friends, they do hang out together. They've all lived with each other in different pairings at various times during their four years at UCSB. They openly joke about each other's sleeping habits. (One of them is "the most notorious sleeper, he head-bangs the pillow." You guess which one.)
The banter among them was fun to listen to.
Von Schell, a.k.a. "Bomber," gets teased about majoring in philosophy ("The quiet philosopher") and being "a weather channel junkie," according to Bannon.
"Yeah, he likes to know what days we'll have off and not have to play when it rains," Peshke added jokingly.
"Bomber is the sweetheart," Bannon offers. "Dave is Big Teddy Bear."
"Chad is The Little Guy Who Could," Molidor, a.k.a "D-Mo," says of the 5-9 second baseman. "Actually, Chad is a baseball dork. He notices everything."
"Molidor is a very good impersonator, especially of Coach," Peshke revealed. "He can do anyone, but Brontsema is his best one."
"Bannon is a good joke teller," Molidor says, "or so he thinks he is."
Speaking of Bannon, he has a fraternal twin brother, who resembles Peshke in stature more so than Jeff, who stands 6-3, 190. Twin brother Mike, who is a high school baseball coach in the San Diego area, is 5-8, 150 pounds.
"He's Mini Bannon," Peshke said of Jeff's twin. "Squish Jeff and you've got Mike."
As the Gauchos' starting middle infielders for three straight years, Bannon and Peshke have developed a rapport.
"A lot of things we don't have to say to each other," Peshke said. "A lot of things we can take for granted."
Like turning double plays, covering pickoff attempts, taking relays from and communicating with outfielders, and trading signs with pitchers and catchers. They're the "point guards" of the defense, as Brontsema says.
If there's been one negative about this team, it's the number of errors Bannon (18) and Peshke (15) have committed as the gut of the Gaucho defense. But whatever anguish they're feeling about the "E-4's" and "E-6's" is anethesized by the team's winning record. So they're afforded the luxury of joking about it.
"Errors? I don't know what you're talking about," Bannon quipped.
"Bannon and I are in a race to see who can make the most errors," Peshke said.
Brontsema's faith in both players is unwavering. He contends that a lot of the errors committed by his two middle infielders have meant nothing "in terms of runs (for the opposition)."
"Both Jeff and Chad are very intelligent baseball players," he added. "That's one of the reasons why they remain in the middle infield."
Assembling this foursome came about in different ways. Both Bannon and Peshke were recruited.
Bannon, who played shortstop at Camarillo High, was supposed to be the future third baseman by his junior year because of older players ahead of him.
"Initially we didn't know if we should sign Jeff, because it's hard to scholarship a kid for two years down the line," Brontsema said. "Give Jeff credit because he wanted to be here. He could have gone somewhere else because he had other offers."
Gemoll's transfer "changed Jeff's career from third base to shortstop," Brontsema noted. It also made him a starter one year sooner than expected.
Bannon's UCSB legacy was sealed during his sophomore year when he broke the school's record for homers by a shortstop, hitting 13.
"He's got a good frame for baseball, a good frame for power," Brontsema said.
Brontsema, meanwhile, remembered watching Peshke play in a Christmas Tournament for Redondo High in Brea.
"I was with a handful of coaches, and the first question I asked was, what kind of student is he?" Brontsema said. "A Long Beach guy said he was a terrible student, you'll never get him. He was (obviously) being facetious because Chad's an outstanding student."
Brontsema liked what he saw in the player, as well.
"His style of play, how aggressive he was, what kind of a bulldog he was, really stuck with me," Brontsema said.
From day one, Peshke became the Gauchos' starting second baseman, which was Brontsema's position during his playing days at UCSB in the early '80s.
Being a four-year starter "is pretty rare," Brontsema acknowledged. In his time at UCSB, he could recall only one player who came close to starting all four years. Erik Johnson was the starting Gaucho shortstop from 1984-87 when Brontsema was an assistant coach under Al Ferrer.
As for Molidor and Von Schell, "Dave was a walk-on and Tyler was kind of a recruited walk-on, and it shows their dedication," Brontsema said. "Our aim is to give players a chance to earn spots, and they did that."
Brontsema heard about the 6-3, 215-pound Von Schell, who went to Palma High in Carmel, from a high school coach in that area.
"That area (Carmel) wasn't a hotly recruited area," he said. "(The coach) was comparing him to Pete Incaviglia, who once set a home-run record in college, in terms of how much power (Tyler) has. We started dialoguing with Tyler at that point, and he had interest enough."
Molidor, who stands 6-5, played both baseball and basketball at Cardinal Newman High in Santa Rosa. The communications major came to UCSB for the academics, and came out for the baseball team as a lark. Because of his size Brontsema saw him as a project with potential.
That potential bloomed in his junior season during which Molidor batted a team-high .378. He was the lone Gaucho to earn first-team All-Big West honors.
There was some speculation that Molidor might not return as a fifth-year senior based on his junior-year numbers.
"I think everyone expected Dave to leave, be gone," said Von Schell. "To get him back was huge for our team. Our record shows that. He had a great year last year, and he's having an even better year this year."
That should enhance Molidor's value in the major league amateur draft this year.
Molidor, meanwhile, sees huge potential in Von Schell, whose 14 homers puts him within three of Greg Vella's school mark of 17 set in 1986.
"I'm a big fan of Tyler's," he said. "I like to watch his swing. I like to encourage him."
"That means a lot to me," Von Schell followed. "(D-Mo's) always right there (for advice)."
"I think the secret's out that our (No.) 5 hitter is good, too, " Molidor added. "I get a lot of pitches down the middle with two strikes. Pitchers don't want to walk me (with Von Schell up next)."
Coincidentally, with the kind of offensive numbers that draws the attention of major league scouts, Von Schell is in a similar position as Molidor a year ago, with one year of eligibility left as a fifth-year senior.
"I have no idea what to expect," says Von Schell, who is close to graduating. "I've never been through this before."
All four of these players could see some interest in the upcoming draft. And the ambition is there.
"You shouldn't be playing if you're not going to challenge your limits and see how far you can go," Peshke said. "I have my life surrounded by baseball -- eating, living and breathing baseball."
Added Von Schell: "Everyone here has a ton of ability to go on to the next level."
And the one who will be rooting them on the most is Brontsema.
"I'll say this until I'm blue in the face, they're a good group of young men," the coach said. "They're good representatives of the university. They deserve as much as they can get -- press (coverage), positive experiences, the whole bit, because they've worked for it."
As one of them said, it's the academics, the girls, the weather, the atmosphere -- did we mention the girls? -- that brought them to UCSB.
It's the winning feeling they hope to leave behind.