First pitch for 4th-seeded Lopes’ first-ever nationals game set for 7:30AM Saturday
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
Just like any other sport that’s been around for a while, club baseball has its perennial powerhouses it looks to when it gets to the national tournament. East Carolina. Penn State. Florida State.
Then there’s the ‘new kid in town’: Grand Canyon.
“I don’t think they’re expecting much of us, because we haven’t been there before,” said Lopes’ Head Coach Rich Warnol. “At least, that’s what I’m hearing.”
The expectations might be low outside of the Arizona borders for the Grand Canyon University Club Baseball team as they head to their first National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) Division I World Series in Holly Springs, North Carolina, this weekend, but they’re substantially higher within the team itself.
“I think we’re the best team in the country, and until someone proves otherwise, I’m going to think that,” said Lopes’ senior shortstop Mike Doty.
Overconfidence? Perhaps. However, Doty has seen the GCU Club Baseball program from just about every angle. The Lopes have already marked this season with milestones, from winning their first Southern Pacific (SoPac) South Conference title last month, to going through the loser’s bracket (after losing their first game at the SoPac Regional Tournament) to win four straight and their first regional title two weeks ago. This weekend, GCU will put their 4th seed in the eight-team tournament against 5th-seeded University of Wisconsin in the last first-round game of the tournament Saturday morning at 10:30 am (7:30 am Arizona time).
All of that is a far cry from the state of the program when the Tucson native first stepped foot on the GCU campus.
“I’ve played club ball for four years: three in the NCBA, and then there was the year before that, when we just faced whatever club team would put us on the schedule,” mused Doty. “For us to go from that to the World Series in three years is just ridiculous. This is the closest team we’ve had on a friendship level. We know what to expect of each other. We’ve had groups of guys in previous years that were close. This year, we’re one big group, and we play that way on the field. I think it’s huge for any team, and it’s big for us.”
The Lopes seem poised to turn all of the possible negatives into positives.
A 2213-mile trip (the 2nd-longest of any team except top-seeded University of Oregon)? Having their first-round game happen a day later than anyone else’s? (The other three first-round games happen Friday.)
“Maybe the jetlag more than anything else, but we have an extra day there, so hopefully, we can handle it,” Warnol said. “We get in at midnight their time (Thursday night), so hopefully we can get them to bed.”
Throwing the first pitch at 7:30 in the morning? “Not really,” Warnol said. “The guys should be able to figure out how to get sleep the night before, and the excitement and adrenaline will kick in at that point.”
Too much adrenaline in your first national tournament game? On turf for only the second time this year? “We came out a little flat in that first game in regionals, so hopefully, those are the jitters we’ve already taken care of,” Doty said. “And hopefully, we’re used to the turf field now with regionals (being held on turf). The nice thing about turf is every hop is a true hop. Once you take a couple of ground balls, you’re ready.”
Even the unfamiliarity about opponents leaves the team unfazed. At most national baseball tournaments, the amount of film and scouting reports available about the teams is unlimited. At the club level, very few of these teams (including GCU) has faced or even seen any of the other seven teams, and word-of-mouth is sometimes misleading.
“All we know is they’re from Wisconsin, their colors are red and white, and they play baseball,” added Doty. “They probably know as much about us, so there’s no advantage. You don’t know until you’re there. It’s kind of nice that way.”
“Scrappy, well-coached, and they have a good left-handed pitcher,” remarked Warnol. “Other than that, I don’t know a lot. They have decent stats, but in club ball, you never know who they’ve faced.”
The 5th-seeded Badgers (18-2 overall, 12-0 Great Lakes Region) come into Saturday’s matchup with plenty of momentum, since they lost their first game of the season back in February to the University of Central Florida, then ran off 17 straight wins until losing their first championship-round game of the Great Lakes Regional Tournament to Michigan State University, 4-2. The Badgers bounced back in the winner-take-all championship game with an 8-2 victory over the Spartans to send UW to the NCBA World Series for the 6th time overall. Three of the Badgers’ four starting pitchers are undefeated, including the aforementioned ‘good left-handed pitcher’, sophomore staff ace Ryan Gassner (6-0, 1.15 earned run average). Gassner’s only appearance of the regional tournament was his 3rd complete-game win of the season, scattering seven Michigan hits in a 5-1 opening-round Badger win. At the plate, the team may not have a ton of power (their 11 home runs as a team is one less than the Lopes’ HR leader, Zach Broussely), but Jared Eichorst, Justin Gorman and Brian Mariska all hit over .400.
Warnol and Company are also prepared for the probability of playing every day, which will likely change pitching rotations, and require different people to step up at key times to take GCU deep into the six-day, double-elimination tournament. The Lopes showed that same resiliency at regionals. At the plate, part-time starting infielder Taylor Brooks was their main hitting star, raising his overall batting average 87 points in the five games with 11 hits, still only slightly overshadowing hitting stalwarts Broussely, Reid Magnaghi and Matt Dolewski, who all had at least six hits in the five games combined. On the mound, staff ace Jarrett McDonald threw over 100 pitches in his lone start, a complete-game, seven-inning win over Chico State Saturday night, then came in in relief in the final game Sunday afternoon to throw five innings to clinch the title.
A win Saturday morning would send the Lopes to a second-round game Sunday night against either top-seeded Oregon or 8th-seeded Texas A&M University, who play each other Friday night. A loss would put the Lopes in the loser’s bracket against the loser of the UO-TAMU game Sunday morning. The other side of the eight-team bracket features the team most others fear: defending NCBA Champion East Carolina, who wound up seeded 2nd despite owning the top spot in the NCBA Division 1 Poll from start to finish this season, and who will make their fifth straight World Series appearance when they take on 7th-seeded Penn State University Friday afternoon.
That ‘fear’, though, doesn’t seem to permeate the Lopes’ dugout.
“You always look at the teams that won it and have been there, so you look at East Carolina,” Warnol said. “But we don’t have to worry about ECU for at least the first two games, so I’ve just told our guys to worry about Wisconsin.”
Which, to Doty, is something to prepare for, not to worry about.
“The only team in the country that can beat us is ourselves,” beamed Doty. “We’ve lost three games, and in each case, it’s been our mistakes, and things we haven’t done well. We really haven’t been beaten.”
The Lopes need four straight wins for a berth in the championship game, which will be held Thursday night, May 31. While there’s no live video coverage of the tournament, the NCBA will provide live stats and a live radio broadcast of each game on its website.
Which, out of all the aspects of the trip, finally elicits the only problem Doty has about his team’s first game.
“My only concern is that my friends back here won’t wake up early enough to listen to it on the radio.”