"We have a hard time gaining credibility with coaches in our league," Littlewood said, noting how only Pepperdine and BYU have been to the WCC Tournament three of the past four years. "We don't really take the polls seriously, so I just kind of chuckle."
For returning stars such as slugger Colton Shaver, however, it is no laughing matter. Last year's late-season slipups "left a bad taste in our mouths," the junior All-American said.
"Our expectations are the same as last year —to compete for the WCC title again and show everyone we deserve to be at the top and hopefully make an NCAA regional appearance," said Shaver, picked as the WCC preseason Player of the Year.
But the slight snubs haven't dampened Littlewood's expectations as the Cougars go about replacing four key losses: outfielder Eric Urry, shortstop Hayden Nielsen, outfielder Brennon Lund and ace pitcher Mike Rucker. Urry and Nielsen ran out of eligibility, while Lund and Rucker turned pro after being drafted in the 11th round by the Angels and Cubs, respectively.
"We are cautiously optimistic about our team," Littlewood said. "On the offensive side, position player-wise, we are going to be really good. We will be able to play defense. We have a great outfield and we are going to hit it well one through nine, with a couple extra guys who can hit, too."
The offensive leader will be Shaver, who hit 23 home runs in his first two seasons and will be drafted in June, causing him to make the decision whether to return for his senior year or sign a pro contract.
"Right now, I am just playing for my team," Shaver said. "What happens after that, we will see. My focus right now is on the day-to-day stuff and competing for a conference championship and an NCAA bid."
The Cougars also are hoping for a boost from outfielder Kyle Dean, who missed the bulk of last season with a stress fracture in his back. Dean suffered a broken hand last fall when he was hit by a pitch in practice as the Cougars prepared for a trip to Curacao, but "is good to go," Littlewood said, and should see his first live at-bat in more than a year Friday.
"He's definitely a talent, a five-tool guy, no doubt about it," Littlewood said about the highly recruited prep phenom from San Diego.
As usual, pitching will determine whether the season's a success. The Cougars have an ace in Maverik Buffo, their No. 2 pitcher last season behind Rucker until an arm injury April 15 sidelined him for the rest of the season.
"After that, we have 10 guys who have really good stuff but are unproven at this level," Littlewood said. "That is really kind of the wildcard of our whole team. Are we going to have a couple guys step up early or is it going to take us a half a season to figure out how to pitch at this level?"
As long as that's the second half, the Cougars will take it.