Cal Poly

Poly hitting coach Zepeda leaving for Long Beach State

Tribune photo by Joe Johnston: 
Nipomo’s Jeff McNeil bats during a game against Paso Robles in April.
Tribune photo by Joe Johnston: Nipomo’s Jeff McNeil bats during a game against Paso Robles in April. Tribune

On the same day Long Beach State announced the hiring of an assistant baseball coach away from Cal Poly, The Tribune learned the 49ers are getting another transplant from San Luis Obispo County.

Mustangs hitting coach and recruiting coordinator Jesse Zepeda — a Righetti High graduate who played for Cal Poly coach Larry Lee at Cuesta College and has coached under his mentor for the past seven seasons — was introduced by Long Beach on Friday.

And, coincidentally, recent Nipomo graduate Jeff McNeil, who originally signed with Cal State Northridge before the Matadors purged their old coaching staff, said he got his release from the school and has verbally committed to play for the 49ers.

“They’re a great baseball school,” said McNeil, a first-team all-county shortstop who hit .446 with 13 doubles, seven home runs and 30 RBI in his lone high school season. “I definitely feel like I upgraded. They’ve made the College World Series a few times, and some great players have come out of there.”

Zepeda’s emotions were a little more mixed. After initially starting his collegiate playing career at Fresno State, the Santa Maria native found a home with Lee at Cuesta before eventually transferring to Oklahoma and playing four seasons in the minors.

His only coaching experience before Lee brought him on at Cal Poly was one season as an assistant at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria.

“Coach Lee is very special for me,” Zepeda said. “I played for him. He gave me an opportunity with little coaching background. I owe everything to him. He molded me into the player and coach I am today.

“It was extremely hard for me to leave the program. They’ve got a real special thing there, but overall, for my family, it was kind of the thing to do.”

Long Beach State finished in the bottom half of the Big West Conference each of the past two seasons, including a last-place finish this past year, but the 49ers are traditionally much stronger.

They won the conference in 2003 and 2008, and between those seasons never finished worse than a tie for second. During the span they’ve produced Major League stars Jered Weaver, Troy Tulowitzki and Evan Longoria, as well as draftee and former Righetti High standout Devin Lohman.

Nine-year head coach Mike Weathers stepped down after a 23-32 (7-17 Big West) season in 2010.

Troy Buckley, a former minor league pitching coordinator with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was promoted to replace Weathers and is bringing in a hefty class of 21 recruits, McNeil said.

“Meeting with coach Buckley and the athletic director, we’re excited about getting this thing back to a national name,” Zepeda said. “They’re committed to winning here, and that’s what the expectation is.”

McNeil said he was given the option of remaining with Cal State Northridge or requesting his release after the Matadors fired eighth-year head coach Steve Rousey in June.

The Nipomo standout took the release and chose Long Beach State over 2008 College World Series Champion Fresno State. He said he received recruiting guidance from coaches with the Santa Barbara Foresters, the California Collegiate League team he’s playing with this summer.

In limited action with the CCL-leading Foresters (22-7, 15-5 CCL) — ranked third in the country in the latest poll — McNeil is batting .250 with seven singles and two RBI.

McNeil’s and Zepeda’s arrivals at Long Beach State appear unrelated. Though Zepeda made his reputation recruiting, McNeil said he hadn’t had any contact with the coach when he was with the Mustangs.

McNeil spent his first three spring seasons as a boys golf standout for the Titans and first arrived on the baseball scene when he joined the California Wahoos last summer.

“I never talked to Cal Poly,” McNeil said. “It’s kind of a little close to home.”

Zepeda’s departure leaves the Mustangs with just two coaches on staff, including Lee.

Pitching coach Jason Kelly just finished his fourth season at Cal Poly. Dustin Kelly, who had served as a volunteer assistant with the Mustangs for several years, is no longer listed on the team’s roster.

Cal Poly does return back-to-back Big West freshmen of the year Matt Jensen and Mitch Haniger, as well as all-conference outfielder Bobby Crocker. Crocker and Jensen, who is currently trying out for the U.S. Collegiate National Team, are both playing in the Cape Cod League this summer.

“The future is extremely bright for Cal Poly,” Zepeda said. “I really see them being competitive as far as pushing for the Big West title. They’re going to be a force, no doubt.”