EUGENE, Ore.- It will be far from the first time that George Horton steps onto Goodwin Field, where he spent 11 years as head coach. It won’t even be his first time in the visiting dugout: he did that in 2009 as the Ducks’ headman. But Friday’s game with Cal-State Fullerton will kick off a three-game series between the Titans and Ducks, the first multiple-game series between the two programs since Horton moved from one to the other.
It’s a special homecoming of sorts, as Horton led the Titans to seven Big West championships and the program’s lone College World Series Championship in 2004. Horton likens coaching at his previous home to visiting to a location just 10 miles from it.
“It’s like being at Disneyland for me. It doesn’t get a whole lot better than that other than the College World Series,” he said.
In his previous meeting with the Titans, which opened the 2009-10 season, Horton was honored prior to the game with a framing of his jersey, decorated with each of his six College World series appearance patches.
“It was a little surreal the first time, although they made it a very special night, they [his team] put the exclamation point on it because we were successful. We won,” he said of the Ducks’ 7-3 victory over Fullerton.
Horton hopes his team will make his second trip to Fullerton just as special. Doing so might be a challenge, as the Titans are a perfect 8-0, garnering a No. 17 national ranking according to Baseball America.
“I guess my dream is that we play well, whether we win all three games or not, or even two out of three, you just kind of hope your baby performs well before the people who mean the most to you,” he said.
Second baseman Aaron Payne is one of the few Ducks who are as closely familiar with the Titans’ program. Growing up in nearby San Clemente, Payne acted as one of Horton’s batboys at Cal-State Fullerton. Now, the junior leadoff hitter hopes for success in his first outing on the field he grew up around.
“I was there with George for a while, being a batboy, it’ll be the first time I’ve ever played on that field,” Payne said. ““It means a lot to him and he played a big part in that program down there and they’re a really good team. So it should be a really good challenge for us.”
The three-game series with his former team opens up a very tough stretch of schedule for Oregon. Just one day after concluding things in Fullerton, Oregon returns to PK Park for a two-game set with Cal-State Northridge on Monday and then couples that with a three-game sequence against No. 2 ranked Vanderbilt.
“It’s one of those phases on your schedule that you look at and go ‘this is going to be challenging’,” Horton said. “It’s little definitive of where you’re at, at least for your report card. It’s not a finish line by any stretch of the imagination, but make not mistake about it this weekend with Fullerton and the following week here with Vanderbilt… that’ll be a pretty good barometer of how deep our pitching and how tough we are."
The eight games in 10 day schedule mimics what players see in professional baseball, something Horton believes will act as an excellent learning experience.
“These guys all eventually want to play major league baseball and minor league baseball, it’s a fairly good comparison to some of the challenges that brings about. But, playing where you’re not real amped up or can’t just look forward to a three-game series in a weekend or a little tired from travel, etc.”
The Ducks and Titans open their three-game series Friday at 7 p.m. at Goodwin Field and following that with 6 p.m. and noon starts on Saturday and Sunday.