A Conversation with Eric Valenzuela

ValenzuelaIn just his third season as head baseball coach at Saint Mary’s, Eric Valenzuela led the Gaels to their first winning record in West Coast Conference play since 1991, their first-ever regular season conference championship, their first-ever conference tournament championship, and their first-ever NCAA tournament appearance. Their 33 wins was the most for an SMC baseball team since 1977. Four Gaels were drafted by major league teams, six earned all-WCC honors, nine received WCC All-Academic honors, and Valenzuela was named WCC Coach of the Year. This conversation with Valenzuela took place Aug. 5, 2016.

Congratulations on a great season!

Thanks. It was a really fun year and we’re excited to keep the momentum going. Now we’ve got to continue to get better.

This WCC championship came in just your third season as head coach. Are you surprised it happened that quickly?

Our first season [2014] wasn’t very good in terms of wins and losses [16-39], but we really try to stay away from looking at that. We were building something, and we set a good standard from a team culture standpoint and had some big wins. We started creating a little toughness about us. And then in year two, having a winning record [29-28, just the third time the Gaels had a winning record since 1991] gave our guys confidence. This year we were talented, we had good players, and they believed in each other. But to be able to do what we did, am I surprised? Yeah. It’s hard to win this conference. There are so many good teams and coaches, what an honor for our guys to do what they did.

I think the expectations from within are high now. The talent pool of recruits is just skyrocketing. It’s a good feeling. But it’s just one step in the right direction. We went 0-2 in the NCAA regional tournament, and you step back and think, this needs to get better. My guys aren’t going to feel like we won the College World Series, because we didn’t.

When you’re recruiting this summer, do you find that players are a little more receptive now that you’ve got a West Coast Conference championship and an NCAA appearance under your belt?

Saint Mary’s is a great place to sell. You get a powerful degree in a beautiful area, and you’re playing baseball in front of a lot of professional scouts and playing for great coaches. Saint Mary’s gives kids opportunities to excel in all areas. A degree is great anywhere, but I believe there’s a big difference between a state school degree and a private school degree. At a school like Saint Mary’s, you’re getting that individual attention, you’re getting that low student-teacher ratio. You mix that with a great baseball experience, where I feel like I have the best coaching staff in the country, and  mix that in with being in Moraga...you can’t beat that. It’s a great place.

You face some different challenges in building a nationally competitive program than the men’s basketball program does because you don’t have the full scholarships to hand out. The cost of Saint Mary’s compared to public schools becomes an issue in a way it doesn’t for basketball players.

That’s a challenge, and there’s also the challenge of having higher academic standards than public schools. I’ve been in both worlds, private schools and public schools, and that’s why I feel like I have somewhat of an advantage in recruiting. As a player I played at Arizona State for two years and then finished my career at Pepperdine, and then I coached at the University of San Diego for six years and San Diego State for four before I became the head coach here, so I have a great idea of where kids will flourish. I feel like you get what you pay for. There’s a reason why Saint Mary’s costs what it does. You’re getting that unbelievable education, it’s just an investment in your life and your future.

The big public schools still have great baseball programs, but parents are smarter now, kids are smarter. Schools like ours are very popular now. If I’m a parent and my son has options, why wouldn’t I choose the place that has the best of all worlds, where he’s going to get a premium education. Because if you look at the percentages... I hope all my players play 20 years in the big leagues and never have to work again, but chances are that’s not going to happen. So I explain to parents, if you have this opportunity and it’s affordable for you, whether through a scholarship or financial aid or savings or a combination, why wouldn’t you get the best of all worlds? They gravitate toward that. I’m a dad, and this is the type of place I want my kid to go to school. I’m not going to send him to a place where there’s 500 people in a class and no individual attention and no help. That’s a big deal.

Our higher admission standards means you take away a huge number of baseball players, but we’re getting the good students out of high school, we’re getting the hard workers. I don’t have many problems off the field or in the classroom. I’m not an easy guy to play for. I put a lot of demands, a lot of pressure on these kids. I don’t allow my players to point fingers and blame anybody. We live by the rule of, look in the mirror. It’s not the coach’s fault, the professor’s fault, the umpire’s fault, your parents’ fault—it’s your fault. Look in the mirror. That’s where we’re different, and it takes a different type of guy to play for us. We’re very careful about the type of guy we try to recruit here.

You’ve been part of programs, as a player and a coach, that have a tradition of success. What made you want to walk into a program at Saint Mary’s that hadn’t had a winning record in the conference for more than 20 years?

It’s a great place. I played in the West Coast Conference at Pepperdine, and you’d come to Saint Mary’s and see the beautiful campus and the beautiful location. My first coaching job was as an assistant here for two years [2002-03]. Mark Orr, our athletics director, has just done a tremendous job, and talking to him I felt like they want to win. He’s given us the resources we need as much as he can, and the support from our administration has been unbelievable. I’m pretty familiar with recruiting at a place like this, and I felt like if I got the right coaches around me we could do something special. But as special as this year was, we’re still building and we have a lot of work to do.

One of my goals when I took this job was to get the alumni players more involved. We’re getting them to come back to campus, they’re wearing their Saint Mary’s gear and excited about where the baseball program is going. There might not have been a tradition of championships here, but the baseball tradition here is unbelievable, there have been so many good players. I’m happy to be part of getting everybody excited about Saint Mary’s baseball.

Are any of the former Gaels who have played in the major leagues part of the program now?

Totally involved, every one of them. We’ve been in constant communication with all of them. Kyle Barraclough is in the big leagues right now, we’ve had great talks and he’s fired up about the program. Mark Teahen[who played in the majors from 2005-11] and Tom Candiotti [who played in the majors from 1983-99] are two of our biggest boosters. But not only those guys, all our ex-players in general, we invite them all back. Our team banquet had so many people attending we had to move it to a bigger space.

Does the success of the men’s basketball program give your players a little extra motivation?

Absolutely. I love it. I want every sport here to be great, because in the end it helps us. Basketball’s playing on ESPN and getting attention, and our recruits see that. That’s a huge help. And it’s a good pressure point for us coaches because, hey, if [men’s basketball head coach] Randy Bennett can do it, then it’s possible for everybody here. We’re not going to make excuses and say we can’t do it—it’s been done.

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