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Baseball Long Beach State

Coach Eric Valenzuela Talks About Leaving Long Beach State Dirtbags For St. Mary’s College

The562’s coverage of Dirtbags Baseball for the 2023 season is sponsored by P2S, Inc. Visit p2sinc.com to learn more.

Surprising news broke last week when it was confirmed by The562.org that Long Beach State Dirtbags coach Eric Valenzuela would be leaving the program. He took the job in 2019, and two years ago his contract was extended through the 2026 season.

Valenzuela is returning to coach at St. Mary’s College where he recorded four consecutive 30-win seasons in six years before taking the Dirtbags job.

“We’re excited as a family,” Valenzuela said of going back to St. Mary’s. “When they make a commitment that they made to my family and I, there’s no way I could pass it up… it said a lot about what they want to do to the program. Quite frankly, we missed (St. Mary’s).”

The new St. Mary’s contract reportedly could keep Valenzuela there until 2043.

Despite not making the NCAA postseason in four years under Valenzuela, his Dirtbags pitching staff has been nationally ranked every year. This season, LBSU pitchers had the highest strikeouts per nine innings this season with 10. The Dirtbags went 33-22 overall and 17-13 in the Big West to finish seventh in the conference.

“When we got the job it wasn’t in a great place,” Valenzuela said. “I’m not going to talk bad about anything, but it was a very difficult situation for everybody. I was up for the challenge and I think we started off with a bang, then we got hit with COVID. Even in year two, we didn’t have a non-conference schedule and we were the last team in the country to get on the field and practice with our guys. And we kept everybody.

“I feel like we got better every year,” he continued. “We had 28 wins in year two when we missed 16 games. Then 29 wins and 33 wins, so I mean we’re definitely on the up and up. But more important than the wins and losses is that (the program) is healthy again. Getting guys to love the game again. And getting the fan support and building relationships. I feel like we left it better than it was.”

In June 2019, Valenzuela was named the eighth head coach of the Long Beach State baseball program. The Dirtbags started the 2020 season 10-5 and was ranked nationally when the COVID-19 shutdowns stole the campaign.

In 2021, the Dirtbags ended the season by winning 15 of their last 17 games while outscoring their opponents 119-42. However, a slow start to the season was hard to overcome after the pandemic shutdowns limited their preparedness. 

Valenzuela signed a contract extension in July of 2021 that was supposed to keep him at the helm through the 2026 season.

“Stability plays a big role,” Valenzuela said. “The longevity and the fact (St. Mary’s) coaches stay there forever says a lot about what that place means to them.”

Valenzuela added that LBSU not having an athletic director was also a deciding factor, but was not a hindrance.

“Obviously it’s not an easy situation for anybody when you don’t have an athletic director in line, but it is what it is,” he said. “You have to roll with the punches like anything else. I was given everything that was needed and everything that was promised.”

Valenzuela ties coach Dick Clegg for the shortest head coaching tenure in Dirtbags history. Clegg coached four seasons from 1960-63.

“It was obviously a tough transition at the beginning because of the passion and the love that the Dirtbags and alums have,” Valenzuela said of winning over the fanbase. “But I’ve got to meet so many great alums, fans and all of that. I love the fact that there is so much passion and energy from Dirtbags and guys who played here in the past. We did nothing but show them respect. I’m just super thankful for this opportunity. It’s made me a better coach. When you’re at a place like this with so much support and excitement, it’s great, and it’s going to be missed for sure.”

Valenzuela assistant coach Bryan Peters will take over the Dirtbags program as interim head coach.

“I think (Peters) is going to do a great job,” Valenzuela said. “Players like him, and he’s going to work his butt off. I think it’s all there to be a winner. I really do believe that. Obviously Long Beach has a great tradition, history and great teams and great coaches. And that’s a great selling point for recruits. We did a good job of getting local kids and keeping guys at home so it’s just about continuing that momentum going forward. At this place, it should be a winner. And it should be contending at the top of the Big West.”

Valenzuela made sure to reiterate his appreciation before leaving.

“I’m so thankful for this opportunity that Andy Fee gave me… I’m so thankful for Marilyn Bohl and what she was able to do with her generosity,” he said. “I’ve made lifelong friends. I’m going to take what I learned from here and help St. Mary’s College baseball get back on top.”

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JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.