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Small Ball Star 

by Howie Stalwick


John Stockton ... Ronny Turiaf ... Dan Dickau ... Blake Stepp ... Jeff Culpepper ... Jeff who? Exactly. Such is the fate of a guy who plays baseball at a basketball-crazy school like Gonzaga.


But consider this: Gonzaga has compiled top-10 career lists in 11 categories for men's basketball players, and the same for baseball players (non-pitchers). Guess which one of the five all-time Bulldog greats mentioned above has stamped his name on the most top-10 lists?


We'll give you a hint: It's not one of the four basketball players. It's Culpepper, a senior outfielder from Woodinville, Wash., who has cracked the top 10 in eight categories and is nearing the career hits record of 269, set by current Detroit Tigers farmhand Eric Rodland from 2000-03.


"He's had a great career, and he has continued to get better," says GU coach Mark Machtolf. "He's one of the best leaders we've ever had at Gonzaga. He's just a quality kid, and he's a great, great teammate."


Culpepper, the lone senior on a freshman-laden squad, has played a huge role in keeping the Bulldogs in contention for their first conference championship and NCAA regional berth since 1981. Culpepper says he turned down pro offers in the six-figure range each of the past two years, and he says the reason was simple.


"Because of Gonzaga, if I'm going to put it in one word," Culpepper says. "I mean, I love this place.


"I think there's a lot more for me and my team to accomplish that I wanted to be around for. As a team, I feel we've come so close every year to making it to the top [winning the West Coast Conference championship], and I wanted to be part of that."


Culpepper was drafted by Boston in the 39th round in 2003, and the Chicago Cubs selected him in the 24th round last year. Chicago retains his signing rights until May 31. Culpepper says the Cubs have assured him they intend to sign him once Gonzaga's season ends (when the NCAA permits contract negotiations to resume). Anyone could sign him after May 31, and he's got a business degree just in case.


Culpepper's offensive statistics have been remarkably similar in his four seasons at Gonzaga, but he's never matched the .349 batting average he compiled in 2002, when he was a Freshman All-American. He entered this week batting .333 with career highs of six home runs, 14 doubles (same as last year), 34 walks and a .524 slugging percentage. Playing center field and right, he had just one error in 49 games for the 28-21 Bulldogs.


"I feel I've improved every year," Culpepper says.


"Some guys are going to hit .340 wherever they go, and I think that's going to be him," says Machtolf. "He'll hit .340 in the minor leagues, and I think he has a chance to be a big leaguer."


Only 12 Bulldogs have ever reached the major leagues, including active players Jason Bay of Pittsburgh and Mike Redmond of Minnesota. Culpepper will be a bit old for a minor league rookie -- he turns 24 in December -- but he's played six positions at Gonzaga, and the pros love versatility.


"Did you know I even pitched this year?" Culpepper says with a huge grin. "Two games, two innings, no runs. Jumped it up to 92 [mph] in the bullpen."


Culpepper's only college all-league honors to date came as a WCC honorable mention pick in 2003. He also made the All-Alaska Baseball League first team two summers ago, playing for the (Fairbanks) Alaska Goldpanners club that has produced major league stars like Barry Bonds, Dave Winfield and Tom Seaver.


"I'm a late bloomer," says the 6-foot-2 Culpepper, who redshirted his first year at Gonzaga after batting .448 as a senior at Woodinville High School. "I weighed 152 pounds when I first set foot at Gonzaga. Now I've peaked at 198."


On the scales, that is. Machtolf thinks Culpepper has yet to peak on the field.


"He's a really competitive kid," the coach says, "but he's also really emotionally stable. He doesn't lose his cool, and he plays so incredibly hard, regardless of how it's going for him.


"He's just a great example for the young kids."





Gonzaga finishes the regular season with four games this weekend at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The Bulldogs (15-11) lead the Coast Division of the West Coast Conference by a narrow margin over LMU (14-12) and San Diego (16-14). If Gonzaga wins the Coast Division, the Bulldogs will play the West Division champion (San Francisco or Pepperdine) in the best-of-three WCC playoffs on May 27-29 at Spokane's Avista Stadium. The winner of that series will be the WCC champions and advance to the NCAA regionals.





Publication date: 05/19/05

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