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Nothing short of remarkable

By David Woods

May 15, 2006 9:00 p.m.

At the beginning of the year, UCLA baseball coach John Savage
said he wanted his freshmen to be playing like sophomores by the
end of the nonconference schedule. At this rate, freshman shortstop
Brandon Crawford might be ready to graduate by the end of the
season.

How far has he come? In fall practice, he was flustered, trying
to prove to his older teammates that he belonged on the team.

Heading into UCLA’s game against UC Irvine tonight,
Crawford is the catalyst for a Bruin team (27-21, 10-8 Pac-10) that
has rebounded from the depths of a 15-41 season a year ago. With an
influx of new talent in a top-five recruiting class, Crawford is
the freshman phenomenon on a team of rookie standouts.

“In the fall, it looked like he had some trouble
transitioning to college,” senior Brett McMillan said.
“He wasn’t playing catch, and he wasn’t batting
the way he thinks he should.”

Crawford was a few months removed from graduation at Foothill
High School and had to deal with the newer challenges of college
life: harder academics, living away from home, and college baseball
itself.

“(At the beginning) I was trying to prove that I could
play with the people around me,” Crawford said. “The
game just seemed to play a lot faster at first.”

Crawford, knowing he hadn’t showcased the potential that
got him to Westwood, came back after winter break on a mission to
win the starting shortstop job. Those around the program knew he
was the shortstop of the future. He was determined to prove to his
teammates, and himself, that his time would be now.

“He made a strong statement that he was going to be our
starting shortstop,” Savage said. “He has earned
everything.”

Crawford led a youth trend that now has the Bruins starting four
freshmen in the field ““ Tim Murphy in the outfield, and
Jermaine Curtis and Ryan Babineau joining Crawford on the
infield.

Described by Savage as “very levelheaded,” Crawford
was able to work himself into the starting lineup as the No. 9
hitter. But he was still not completely satisfied. He batted
leadoff throughout high school, he figured. Why should things
change in college?

They didn’t for long. The season started on Feb. 3 against
Fresno State with Crawford in the nine hole. By the time UCLA faced
then-No. 19 North Carolina State on March 3, he had secured his
place as the team’s leadoff hitter. He has become one of the
team’s most visible players, but has kept a cool demeanor
that has earned the respect of UCLA’s veterans.

“He’s just got a great presence on the field,”
junior Nolan Rouse said.

Like most first-year starters, Crawford has benefited from
having some veteran guidance. Rouse was hoping to get the starting
spot that Crawford claimed. Instead of holding a grudge, Rouse has
taken the freshman under his wing

“I’ve just tried to pass on my knowledge and my
experience,” Rouse said. “I’ve just tried to help
him out in every way I know. You’ve got to make the team
better. He had the starting job, so I tried to teach.”

Crawford has learned. His goal for the year was lofty: become
the best shortstop in the Pac-10. With the help of fielding coach
Brian Green, Crawford has worked on his consistency in the
field.

“He just comes every day with the same intensity,”
Green said. “He’s a mature team player. And he’s
a good

person, like all of our team guys. I just enjoy working with him
on a daily basis.”

Crawford leads UCLA with 12 errors, but has made only five in
his last 23 games. He’s an athletic fielder with potential
for the occasional spectacular play.

His range allows him to reach more grounders in the “5.5
hole” between shortstop and third base, so the Bruins will
happily take his occasional miscues. Especially if he keeps
swinging the bat the way he is now.

He is currently batting .313 and leads the team with 97 total
bases. Despite batting leadoff for much of the season, he has 26
RBIs, good for third on the team.

“I really had no idea (I’d be doing this
well),” Crawford said. “This was a whole new level for
me, so I didn’t know what to expect.”

Coming to UCLA was a decision that took a fair amount of thought
for Crawford. Growing up outside of Palo Alto, he was a Stanford
fan as a kid. Ultimately, however, he decided UCLA had the right
mix of everything for him: good academics, good weather and a
rising baseball program under a new coach.

“Knowing that there was this big recruiting class, and
knowing that I’d have a good chance to play right away, I
thought this was a good fit for me,” Crawford said.
“And there was a good chance to stop the losing of last
year.”

Crawford’s improvement this year has played a large part
in the change from last year’s desolate season. At 27-21, the
Bruins could possibly make the playoffs, something which would have
been

highly unlikely at the season’s beginning. Much of the
credit has to go to Crawford.

“It’s tough to say (where we’d be without
him),” McMillan said. “He’s a solid shortstop
defensively and a great hitter. You can’t really put a value
on it. But I don’t think we’d be at .500, and I
don’t think we’d be in the position we’re in to
possibly make the playoffs.”

Crawford himself has set his sights on winning the Pac-10 and
making the playoffs this year. Coming from a guy who has realized
every goal and surmounted every obstacle thus far in his college
career, one has to figure that it is only a matter of time.

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