Former UC Irvine baseball coach Dave Serrano said the one move that proved most catalytic in the Anteaters' evolution as a national power occurred when then-freshman walk-on Ben Orloff was inserted into the lineup as the everyday shortstop in 2006.
Serrano, now the coach at Tennessee, believes the recent hiring of Orloff as an assistant coach may once again propel the Anteaters back toward the top.
"They've probably hired their next head coach," Serrano said of Orloff, who could replace Mike Gillespie at the helm as soon as the 2015 season. "I think Coach Gillespie [age 73 and with one year remaining on his contract that will give him seven seasons at the helm] has made, as he usually does, a wise choice to try to resurrect the program and get it back to the top of the Big West again."
Orloff retired 41 games into his fifth season in professional baseball in early June with the Double-A Corpus Christi Hooks. He was picked to replace former associate head coach and recruiting coordinator Pat Shine mere days later.
Orloff said his role has yet to be clearly defined and Gillespie, on vacation, was not available for comment.
But Orloff said he was heading up efforts toward landing the 2014 recruiting class, and that he was, along with Bob Macaluso, a full-time assistant. Daniel Bibona, another former All-American for the Anteaters, remains the volunteer assistant coach working with the pitchers.
"[Orloff] is going to be a good coach and recruiting coordinator," Serrano said. "And I'm sure he'll probably coach one of the bases. I think he'll pick up that stuff immediately. I know he can rise to the challenge. He'll be a savvy, smart individual and will definitely add to what Coach Gillespie has established there over the last few years."
Serrano said the 26-year-old Orloff's youth and inexperience should not limit his ability to make an immediate impact.
"He's mature beyond his years in every aspect," Serrano said. "He carries himself extremely well, he has great knowledge and he's a people person. I don't think anyone that has ever come across Benny doesn't realize he's a stand-up guy. He's going to learn quickly and Benny is the kind of person who will be able to adapt."
Orloff, the 2009 Big West Conference Player of the Year as a senior, when he also won the Brooks Wallace Award as the nation's top shortstop, said it is too soon to talk about him becoming a head coach. But others, including Serrano, obviously disagree.
"To me, Benny Orloff is Anteater baseball," Serrano said. "There are a lot of other individuals who have made that program what it is today, but I don't think there's another young man that has come through the program that has done as much to help put it on the map as he did.
"When we had an injury and needed to put him in at shortstop [during the 2006 conference season], he never came out again," Serrano said of the program's career leader in hits (281) runs (178) and games played (241). "He was a part of a lot of success [at UCI]. To me, the best way to describe Benny Orloff is a winner. He has won everywhere he has been, from high school, to Irvine, to minor league baseball."
Orloff said he holds no bitterness over his professional career in the Houston Astros organization and he is anxious to begin a coaching opportunity he had always hoped would come.
"This is something I've always wanted to do and there no place I'd rather be doing it and no other coach I'd rather be working for," Orloff said. "I'm not very far removed from playing the game at one of the higher levels and I think that will help me relate to the players. I know how hard the game is."
Orloff said the program can return to the level of success that saw it earn six straight postseason berths from 2006 to 2011, including a trip to the College World Series in 2007 and Super Regional berths in 2008 and 2011.
The Anteaters failed to reach the postseason each of the last two seasons.
"I think with what UCI has to offer, in terms of baseball, academics, location and its support staff, there is no reason why it can't win at the highest level," Orloff said. "Over the last 10 years, it's hard to think of too many programs as successful as UCI. We should be a contender to win the Big West every year. I'm just looking forward to interacting with the kids and sharing some of my experience."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun