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Wildcats make up for a sub-par season in 2001

Last year’s Chico State Wildcats baseball team missed the playoffs for the first time since 1996, and this did not set well with the team’s brain trust.

Whatever adjustments had to be made obviously were. In the past couple of months, the 2002 ‘Cats have clawed their way back, racking up a gaudy 24-1 record that has propelled the Chico nine back to familiar territory atop the collegiate Division II ranks.

And, at 11-1, they rest in sole possession of the interdivision California Collegiate Athletic Association standings.

This year’s club appears hell-bent on re-establishing itself as one of—if not the—premier Division II squads in the country and making a return engagement come May to the college World Series in Montgomery, Ala.

Though they have won their way to Alabama four times in six years, it remains no small task considering the ‘Cats are just one of 227 teams that play at the Division II level. Obviously, Coach Lindsay Meggs made it crystal clear that last year’s “mediocre” 35-16 record was unacceptable. Meggs lit a fire under the squad during a four-game bonding trip away from the distractions of Chico and over to the Big Island, where they proceeded to drop a four-game shellacking on Hawaii Pacific University. And on March 11 the ‘Cats were named the No. 1 Division II school in the nation according to College Baseball magazine.

But they did suffer somewhat of an indignity to attain their goal—after a 20-0 start on the season, they lost a game to San Francisco State.

In 1997, on its way to claiming the No. 1 ranking, Chico posted a remarkable 52-11 record, and the team nearly matched that total during its second championship run in ‘99, when the team piled up 50 victories. These are very respectable numbers. Keep in mind that before Meggs’ 1996 squad pocketed a nifty 43 wins, the best any ‘Cat team in history had mustered was 35 in 1978 under then-coach Dale Metcalf.

Since 1947—there was no baseball program between 1927 and 1946, and records are non-existent during the early-20th-century George Sperry/Art Acker years—Chico’s winning percentage languished around .500. Since Meggs seized the helm in 1994, the team has played nearly .700 ball, easily the best in the conference the past decade.

And this while playing in the California Collegiate Athletic Association, considered by many as the toughest in the nation.

Chico pitching coach Dave Taylor, Meggs’ right-hand man for the past six years, puts it quite succinctly.

“The key to getting to Montgomery is getting out of this division during the playoffs. This is a very tough division. The best team out of the Northeast, the one that goes to the national tournament, would come in last place in our conference.”

Taylor, a catcher for the 1986 Division I national champion University of Arizona, is not shy when describing what Meggs and company have built here.

“We’re probably better than half of the Division I programs,” he states bluntly.

This recent and consistent success has allowed the luxury of recruiting some of the best talent statewide. In the old days, says Taylor, 80 to 85 uninvited kids would show up the first day of practice hoping to make the squad.

“This year, there were eight.” None of them made the cut.

A quick perusal through a game program reveals that virtually everyone on this team is a junior-college transfer. Taylor admitted that in the past Chico’s party reputation may have hurt when recruiting kids straight out of high school, but with the roster consisting nearly entirely of ballplayers with a couple of years out of the house, this is no longer the case.

“Some of the freshmen’s parents initially worried about sending their kids here,” he explains. “But the majority of our recruits have had a couple years on the JC level, so it’s not really an issue by then.”

Although Chico State isn’t afforded the enticement luxuries offered by Division I schools, such as fiscal rewards, full-ride scholarships or housing (the best Chico can do is a year’s tuition), the school does have at least three distinct advantages maintaining its newfound winning tradition: Meggs’ renowned coaching skills; a great place to live and learn; and what has to be considered a recruitment ace-in-the-hole, Nettleton Stadium.

You’d be hard pressed to find someone to speak ill of the $2 million facility perceived by just about everyone in the league as the finest anywhere.

“I haven’t seen them all, but from what I’ve heard from others is that the stadium is not just the nicest in our division, but anywhere,” says Taylor, who’s seen hundreds of venues in nearly 20 years of traveling around the country in one baseball capacity or another.

It is no secret that teams dread visiting the unfriendly confines of Nettleton Stadium, affectionately referred to as “The Net.” Since that first ticket was sold in 1997, the home team has walked off the field victorious 123 out of 157 times. One reason for this success can be chalked up to the proverbial “10th man,” a vociferous fan base that can and will number into the hundreds, and occasionally thousands, on sunny spring afternoons.

Chico, you might have noticed, is a baseball town with a great number of teams, ranging from peewee league right up to the semi-professional and professional rank of the Chico Heat.

A trip to the Net for a college game offers a stark contrast to the nighttime Heat games. The most obvious difference is immediately evident—the beer garden is padlocked tight for school games. Ironically, the smaller Wildcat fan base appears more fired up than the family-oriented Heat game crowds, with the visiting nine frequently peppered with less-than magnanimous praise from the home fans.

At a recent game against Sonoma State, three particularly vocal fans just couldn’t leave alone the, uh, stature of 5-foot, 4-inch Cossacks infielder Brian Stream.

“Hey! Somebody left their helmet in the batter’s box,” they yelled when Stream stepped to the plate.

And each time he swung and missed, he got hit with, “Oh, don’t worry little man, you’ll grow up someday.”

Another difference for the baseball purist is the lack of the between-innings shenanigans of the pro games. It is a classic example of less is more, or as one old-timer put it, “baseball neat, straight up, hold the dot racing.”

Sitting behind the plate on a pristine Saturday afternoon watching the ‘Cats destroy nemesis Sonoma during the 20-game win streak, I can hear the guy behind me talking on his cell phone. During the top of the second, the home team up 5-3, he goes cellular to at least five buddies, the message essentially the same: “Dude, you gotta get over here. I’m catching serious rays. There’s babes all over they joint and it’s free [for students]. Dude, it’s better than Bidwell! This team kicks butt!”

On March 22-24, the Cats host a four-game series versus league rival Stanislaus. Students with CSUC identification are admitted free. A general-public ticket is $5.