Trojans ready for season opener without Cruz

The USC baseball team figured to have its hands full when opening the season Friday night against No. 23 Cal State Fullerton.

Early challenges · Senior second baseman Adam Landecker has stepped up his leadership in light of head coach Frank Cruz’s firing. - Daily Trojan File Photo

Early challenges · Senior second baseman Adam Landecker has stepped up his leadership in light of head coach Frank Cruz’s firing. — Carlo Acenas | Daily Trojan

Coming off what was the worst season in the worst 10-year stretch in the history of the storied program, the team and the coaching staff knew significant improvements would be needed. Anything close to a repeat of last season’s dismal 23-32 campaign, including a 7-21 conference record, would probably be enough to cause wholesale changes throughout the program.

Turns out, some of those changes happened quite a bit sooner than expected.

USC Athletic Director Pat Haden “terminated” head coach Frank Cruz on Wednesday, less than a week after suspending him for violating NCAA Countable Athletically Related Activities (CARA) rules, which regulate the amount of hours a team can practice under the direction or supervision of its coaches.

“Adhering to all NCAA rules is paramount for each one of our coaches, student-athletes and staff members,” Haden said Wednesday in a statement. “Those who knowingly break NCAA rules are subject to termination.”

Associate head coach Dan Hubbs has been promoted to head coach. Hubbs, a former player at USC, is in his second season with the program, having served as the pitching coach at Cal for 12 years before returning to his alma mater.

“It’s bittersweet,” Hubbs said of his promotion. “Obviously coming back to my alma mater and being the coach here is sort of the dream. But Frank Cruz is a friend, and he gave me the opportunity to come back here. And it’s tough to see this happen to a friend.”

Hubbs and the team were informed of the decision by Haden and the rest of the athletic department brass — including Steve Lopes, Mark Jackson and J.K. McKay — just prior to practice on Wednesday. And all involved seem to be taking the situation in stride.

Cruz posted a statement on his Twitter on Wednesday night, saying “I want to thank USC for the opportunity to coach such a storied program. All of my efforts were aimed at returning USC to greatness, both on and off the field. The Trojan family deserves and demands nothing less. I am responsible for recording all practice hours and for the required compliance. Any oversight was unintended. I thank the USC family, USC Athletics, alumni, players & parents for an extraordinary experience and I wish the team & our recruits success.”

As for the team, the loss of the head coach two days before the season opener is jarring. But the resolution is something everyone values.

“Whatever happened, I’m just glad we can put it all behind us and move forward,” junior catcher Jake Hernandez said. “We’re all just excited to play ball.”

Neither the players nor the coaching staff expects much to change with Cruz’s departure.

“We’ve got a really together group of guys here,” fifth-year senior outfielder Greg Zebrack said. “When I first started here, we had a lot of high-profile players and top draft picks, and we don’t really have that anymore. But that makes for more of a team.”

That sentiment is echoed by all involved, including Hubbs.

“We’ve had some guys really step up as leaders throughout all this,” Hubbs said. “We’re a coach down right now, and so it’s going to be up to some of the older guys to help out a bit more in practice.”

Hubbs specified senior second baseman Adam Landecker and junior shortstop James Roberts — both entering their third year as starters — as players who he has seen doing just that.

“We’ve got a really youthful team,” Hubbs said. “Especially on the mound.”

Junior pitcher Bobby Wheatley, who has pitched just 38 2/3 innings in his college career, is currently tapped as the Friday night starter. Sophomore pitcher Wyatt Strahan and his 26 1/3 innings of experience is set to start on Saturday, while true freshman pitcher  Kyle Twomey is slated for Sunday.

The starting catcher is sophomore Garrett Stubbs, while sophomore Dante Flores is set to start at first base. In the outfield, the Trojans will start a pair of true freshmen in Turner Clouse and Timmy Robinson.

“We’ve got some promise,” Hubbs said. “If we play well, we have a very good chance to beat anybody. But we have to play well and we have to execute. Because it will be tough for us to grind out wins when we’re not.”