Top youngsters in spotlight as college season begins

Rodon, Schwarber among highly touted NCAA prospects set to play this weekend

Top youngsters in spotlight as college season begins

The start of the Division I college baseball season has arrived, even if spring hasn't for much of the country.

Friday is Opening Day for college programs. After a hard winter and a long offseason, the players are eager to get on the field and begin their season.

"It's going to be awesome," Indiana catcher Kyle Schwarber said. "We're ready to get out there and start a new chapter."

"I am like a lot of other guys on the team," LSU right-hander Aaron Nola said at the team's media day. "We are anxious to get back on the field again and play another team. We have only been able to play against ourselves. It has been a while since we have been able to play against another team in front of all of our fans in Alex Box [Stadium]."

While the players are just excited to get their season going, Opening Day also means the preparations for the 2014 First-Year Player Draft -- which are already underway -- will ratchet up a notch for scouts and executives.

Of the 20 college players ranked on MLB.com's Top 50 Draft Prospects list (including Schwarber and Nola), all but Hartford right-hander Sean Newcomb will be in action this weekend. The 17th-ranked Newcomb and the rest of the Hawks will begin their season next Friday at Georgetown.

The winter storm that hit the South this week wreaked havoc on many teams' schedules and pushed back the start of the season for a few top prospects. North Carolina State, led by left-hander Carlos Rodon -- the top-ranked player in this year's Draft class -- and shortstop Trea Turner -- the top-ranked position player -- was scheduled to begin its season with a three-game series at UC Santa Barbara. But the Wolfpack was unable to fly out of Raleigh, forcing the series to be cancelled. Instead they will open the season Saturday at home against Canisius. Kennesaw State, which features catcher Max Pentacost, had its opener against Middle Tennessee State pushed back to Saturday.

When North Carolina State is finally able to get on the field this season, it will have understandably high expectations. A year ago, Rodon and Turner helped lead the Wolfpack to their first College World Series appearance since 1968. While they are expected to be top selections in the Draft this June, both made it clear at the team's media day last week their focus is firmly set on a return trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

"I think it's safe to say if we don't get back to Omaha, it's pretty much a failure of a season, at least to me," Rodon said. "So that's our goal, and we're not worried about the Draft. We're about winning."

Like Rodon and Turner, Schwarber helped his team reach the College World Series last season, while establishing himself as a top Draft prospect for this year. Schwarber said he wants to help the Hoosiers take the next step and compete for the national championship this season, a process that begins this weekend with a four-game series at Texas Tech.

"People say your junior year is the most important year, and all of the Draft buzz is good," he said. "But if I do everything I can do to put my team in a position to win, I think I'll have pretty successful year, and everything in the outside world will take care of itself."

Winning also remains on the mind of the defending national champions, UCLA. Coach John Savage said not much has changed since the Bruins beat Mississippi State to win the first national title in program history last June. After a short celebration, he quickly began work on the 2014 season.

"The bar has been raised here for quite a while," Savage said. "When you win the national championship, it does change things some. You are at the pinnacle of college baseball now, and it's just as hard staying there as getting there."

The Bruins have to replace six players who were selected in last year's Draft, including starting pitchers Adam Plutko and Nick Vander Tuig. The Indians selected Plutko, named the Most Outstanding Player in the College World Series, in the 11th round last year, while the Giants grabbed Vander Tuig in the sixth round.

Savage said the Bruins know they have a target on their backs this year, but they are ready to begin their title defense (Friday against Portland). UCLA has no ceremonies planned for this weekend as last season fades into memory and all attention turns to the start of the new campaign.

"We've had all our celebrations, parades and ring ceremonies already," Savage said. "To be honest, I just want to focus on this season and this team right now."

Teddy Cahill is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @tedcahill. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.