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Holding fast to the advice to "dance with the person who brung you," the BYU Cougars open NCAA tournament play Thursday with their most prominent player on the mound.

The Cougars, 47-18, made it to the NCAA tourney largely on the right arm of John DeSilva, the WAC's Player of the Year. BYU Coach Gary Pullins has tabbed DeSilva as the starting pitcher against the South Alabama Jaguars.DeSilva's 16-2 record and 3.26 ERA put him among the elite in BYU's pitching history. His 16 wins ties him with Peter Kendrick for the most wins in a season.

DeSilva got to BYU baseball in a rather roundabout way. Raised in Fort Bragg, Calif. (pop. 5,500), he played for a tiny 1A school. Despite earning 10 varsity letters, being all-league in wrestling, track and baseball, and producing an earned run average that was below 1.00, he drew only moderate interest from college baseball scouts.

"I was from a town off in the woods somewhere. Nobody knew who I was," says DeSilva.

After graduation from high school he walked on at Cal-Berkeley as a football player, redshirting for a year, and hoping to play baseball for the Bears in the spring. But after a year, he decided the enthusiasm level toward him as a baseball player was low in Berkeley, so he transferred to BYU. "We knew all about who he was when he was in high school," says Cougar Coach Gary Pullins. "We wanted John all along."

Last season, as a sophomore, he produced the best ERA (3.50) on the team and built an 8-1 record on the strength of a fine slider and good fastball.

This year DeSilva stormed through the WAC, winning all eight of his conference games and the only game he pitched in the league tournament. He no-hit Colorado State in April and a month later - ignoring the effects of a root canal the same morning - threw a three-hitter and struck out 15 batters in a win over Utah. That was followed by a 10-strikeout, four-hit performance against San Diego State.

He struck out 13 batters in a 9-2 win over Oregon State in March.

His performance has been so impressive that Pullins described DeSilva as the best pro pitching prospect the Cougars have ever had. "John has all the tools. He is a good athlete, has a big heart and it goes without saying that he has a great arm," says Pullins.

Statistics back up the accolades. DeSilva has a phenomenal 130 strikeouts in 107 innings pitched and he has walked just 52.

South Alabama, 43-20, is making its fourth tourney appearance in seven years. Leading the way is preseason All-America Mike Mordecai, who bats .374 and has eight homers.

The teams have never met. The only familiar opponent in the six-team Central Regional is UNLV, a team the Cougars beat two of three times at the start of the year.

Other games Thursday are Texas A&M vs. Jackson State at 7 p.m. and LSU vs. UNLV at noon.

This marks BYU's seventh NCAA Regional appearance, and second at-large invitation. History doesn't favor the Cougars' odds, as BYU is 4-12 in Regional play and has never won a first-round game.

The BYU-South Alabama game will be aired tape-delayed at 7:05 p.m. on KSRR (1400-AM) in Provo.