For a weekday in early February, everything seemed right at Packard Stadium, home of the Arizona State baseball team.
The sun was shining, the grass green and trimmed. The sound of cleats on concrete could be heard between the aluminum pings coming from the batting cage. A new season was clearly imminent, but something wasn't right.
Due to NCAA sanctions, the ASU baseball team begins another season Friday already knowing it will end in late May without a postseason appearance. That inevitability has simply forced the proud program to rearrange its goals. Unable to pursue the program's sixth national championship, the group ranked No. 17 in the preseason has set its sights on winning the first Pac-12 Conference title.
"That's our College World Series right now," junior shortstop Deven Marrero said. "That's as far as we're going to go, and we're definitely going to win that. That's what's on everybody's mind, and that's what we're striving for."
Not since 1999 have the Sun Devils closed out a year without a trip to the postseason, but they'll do so this year on May 27 in Tucson. Despite that cloud hanging over their season -- thanks to a period of infractions during former coach Pat Murphy's tenure -- they remain motivated and have plenty of reason to believe a Pac-12 championship is within reach.
Most notably gone from the team that finished 43-18 and one win shy of a trip to the College World Series in Omaha last year are pitchers Kramer Champlin and Mitchell Lambson, catcher Xorge Carillo, outfielders Matt Newman and Johnny Ruettiger, and infielders Zack MacPhee, Zach Wilson and Riccio Torrez.
Still, ASU returns a talented group not short on experience. Marrero headlines the group alongside junior infielder Joey DeMichele, a fellow All-Pac-10 selection last year whose .368 batting average and nine home runs were best on the team and 51 RBIs were second only to Torrez's 54.
DeMichele moves into a regular position role this season after serving mostly as a designated hitter last year; he has spent the most time so far at second base. After a breakout season, though, DeMichele faces a taller task in repeating his offensive success.
"Once (teams) get a book on you, people know you," third-year ASU coach Tim Esmay said. "I would imagine there aren't too many programs that are coming to play (ASU) that don't circle Joey DeMichele's name and say 'Alright, let's not let this young man beat us.'"
That may be the case, particularly in the perennially stacked Pac-12, but DeMichele remains unfazed.
"I guess there's a report on me now because I've played a full year," DeMichele said. "But when it comes down to it, hitting is hitting. You really can't break down a player and pitch against him and stop him if he's really on his game."
Junior outfielder Andrew Aplin also returns from last year's starting lineup to provide a veteran presence in the outfield, but perhaps the strongest part of ASU's returning core is its pitching.
Junior right-hander Brady Rodgers, 9-4 with a 2.75 ERA last season, headlines the starting rotation once again and is followed closely by Jake Barrett, also a junior who went 7-4 with a 4.14 ERA last year but battled arm soreness late in the season.
Esmay said Barrett's arm is feeling good, and based on a few signals at this week's annual media day, the right-hander might end up closing games this season. Sophomore Trevor Williams said he expects to start this season, and Esmay hinted that he might like a left-hander in the rotation, presumably either freshman Brandon Bonilla or Adam McCreery.
"I feel good that we've got a core of older guys that have been through it," Esmay said. "Then, for the first time in a while since we've been here, we've got two pretty quality left-handed freshmen that are power arms."
An improved group of sophomores, including outfielder Kasey Coffman, infielder James McDonald and catcher Beau Maggi, should be in the mix for starting roles. A few freshmen, including outfielders Trever Allen and Jake Peevyhouse, could also factor prominently into Esmay's plans.
The team may be young, but what it lacks in experience it clearly makes up for in determination and attitude.
"We definitely have a chip on our shoulder," Williams said. "We've got nothing to lose. If we come out with the No. 1 ranking and we're not in the postseason, the whole college world is going to say 'Why isn't the No. 1 team in Omaha right now?' ... That bulldog mentality of going after every team like it's our last game and we have nothing to lose -- that just sparks our flame."
Reality will hit, though, once the regular season nears its close and the Sun Devils take the field for their final game. That's why the focus remains on being the Pac-12's best.
"All the talk in the world won't change the fact that after our last Pac-12 series, we're done," DeMichele said. "That's a reality for us, and our one goal is a Pac-12 championship.
"If we get a high ranking, that's great. All the papers can rate us whatever they want to, but in reality, the only thing we can win this year is the Pac-12 championship."