Lopes fight through loser’s bracket to knock off UC-Santa Barbara twice in championship round to win title
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
GCU Club Sports is proud to announce that for the first time ever, the Grand Canyon University Club Baseball team has captured the National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) Southern Pacific (SoPac) Division I Regional Championship. The 2nd-seeded Lopes officially secured the SoPac Region title with a thrilling, come-from-behind 12-10 victory Sunday afternoon over 4th-seeded University of California-Santa Barbara in the championship game at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California. The win secures the Lopes’ first-ever trip to the 2018 NCBA Division I World Series in Holly Springs, North Carolina.
The Lopes had been waiting for this moment ever since they walked off the field in Tucson on April 23, 2017. That was the site of their final game of the 2017 regular season: a 3-1 win over the University of Arizona that the Lopes thought would be more than enough to earn the at-large playoff berth for last year’s regional tournament. It was a playoff berth that never came. That became the main motivation for Lopes’ Head Coach Rich Warnol and his returners this year to take the guesswork out of reaching their first postseason on the Division I level. It shot the Lopes to the top of the SoPac South Conference standings throughout most of the 2018 regular season, and propelled them to jettison rival Arizona State University in their final regular season series to win the conference, the automatic bid to Lancaster, and the second seed in the four-team, double-elimination tournament.
The road to 2018 playoff success, however, began with a couple of huge obstacles. The Lopes arrived in southern California with a gap of nearly three weeks between their final regular season game and the playoffs, and that idle time increased by a day when Friday’s tournament action was postponed after an ‘active shooter’ situation at a nearby high school forced AVC to close their campus for most of the day. Once the Lopes finally got between the lines on Saturday morning to face 4th-seeded UCSB, they displayed every bit of that three weeks of rust, allowing 5 Gaucho runs in the first two innings and digging themselves an insurmountable hole in a 12-3 loss. That dropped GCU into the loser’s bracket, and forced them to win their next four games without a loss.
When the Lopes took the field a couple of hours after that loss for their first elimination-round game against 3rd-seeded University of California-Chico, they finally began to resemble the team that had gone 22-3 against NCBA teams in the regular season. Lopes’ pitching ace Jarrett McDonald restored order on the mound by blanking the Wildcats for the first three innings, which allowed GCU’s offense to awaken. By the time the 4th inning rolled around, the Lopes’ offense had knocked around CSUC to the tune of two triples, six doubles, two singles and ten runs, and the suspense as to whether the Lopes would make it to the tournament’s second and final day was no longer in doubt in a 12-4 win, sending Chico State home.
The Lopes led off Sunday’s action with a semifinal matchup pitting the top two seeds, GCU and top-seeded California Polytechnic State University, against each other in another “losers-go-home” clash. The result was a 23-run, 30-hit offensive onslaught between the two teams in a game that the Lopes never trailed, yet never held a comfortable lead. GCU built a 5-0 lead in the first 1 ½ innings-thanks to key RBI singles from Justin Horton and Reid Magnaghi, but Cal Poly used an RBI single of their own, as well as a pair of run-scoring wild pitches to cut the lead to 5-3 after two innings. Once again, the Lopes pushed the lead forward with a four-run 4th (much in part to Taylor Brooks’ 3-run homer)-only to see the Mustangs cut the 9-3 lead to a single run with a trio of runs in the bottom of the 4th, and two more in the 5th. Back-to-back extra-base hits by the Lopes’ Anthony Alamillo and David Macias highlighted a four-run 6th inning, but once again, CPSU refused to fold, answering back with two in the bottom of the inning. After the Lopes were retired in order for the first time in the game in the top of the 7th, GCU reliever Josh Gainer saw the tying run come to the plate for Cal Poly with one out, but fanned Scott Hroza on a called third strike, then got Ryan Williams to fly out to deep center field to end the game, and send the Lopes to the championship round with a 13-10 victory.
That set the stage for a first-round rematch in the finals, with GCU needing to top the UCSB twice before suffering a loss. The Gauchos initially picked up where they left off in the opening game, getting an RBI single from Michael Viola in the first inning, and a Joshua Garcia 2-run blast in the 2nd to take a 3-0 lead. The Lopes used three straight singles in the top of the 3rd inning to put the tying runs aboard, but then grounded into an inning-ending double play to end the threat. Finally in the 5th inning, the Lopes broke through in huge fashion, once again loading the bases with one out, but this time celebrating as Zach Broussely crushed a 1-1 pitch over the scoreboard in left-center field for a grand slam homer to give the Lopes the lead for good at 4-3. Matt Dolewski’s 2-RBI double highlighted another four-run inning in the 6th, and that was plenty for GCU starter Austin Grijalva to go the seven-inning distance on the mound, scattering seven hits and working out of jams in both the 6th and 7th innings to secure the 8-4 Lopes’ win.
That set up a ‘rubber game’ between the two teams in a winner-take-all finale. This time, it would be the Lopes striking first, getting RBI hits by Broussely and Horton, and sacrifice flies from both Magnaghi and Kadin Breeze to take a 4-0 lead after an inning. That set up a mammoth second inning-one that took nearly an hour to complete. The Gauchos attacked in the top of the inning, sending 13 men to the plate, and scoring nine runs on seven hits. Undeterred, the Lopes fought back to tie the game in the bottom of the inning by using three straight walks to start the inning to their advantage, letting Magnaghi’s double and Michael Doty’s ensuing triple bring a total of five runs home. Three straight singles would give Santa Barbara the lead back at 10-9 in the top of the third, then the Lopes again used extra-base hits from Alamillo and Magnaghi to take the lead back at 11-10 after three. The one-run lead was all McDonald, GCU’s third pitcher of the game, would need from there, settling in to retire the final 13 Gaucho hitters to face him. By the time UCSB’s Thomas Zlatic came up to bat with two out in the seventh, McDonald had used just 45 pitches in his five innings of work. McDonald’s 46th and final pitch was the clincher as Magnaghi squeezed Zlatic’s lazy fly ball to left field to end the game, icing GCU’s 12-10 win, and letting the celebration of those wearing purple jerseys ensue.
Warnol had plenty of heroes to high-five at the trophy presentation after the championship game. Brooks flourished after being moved up to the leadoff spot for the third game of the tourney, going 11-for-14 with a homer, triple, double, scoring nine times and knocking in four runs. Magnaghi led the team with 9 RBI (to go along with 9 hits in 20 at-bats), Dolewski went 8-for-17 with 8 runs scored and 6 RBI; while both Broussely and Horton contributed six hits each. Meanwhile, on the hill, McDonald accounted for half of the Lopes’ four wins, pitching a full 12 innings while allowed 5 earned runs on 11 hits, walking four and striking out five.
The Lopes now have eleven days to prepare for their first appearance at 1800-seat Ting Stadium in Holly Springs, North Carolina, the site of this year’s NCBA DI World Series. The Lopes are the 4th seed in the eight-team, double-elimination tournament, which commences play Friday morning, May 25. The Lopes will actually play the final first-round game of the four, and will wait until the morning of Day 2 on Saturday, May 26, to make their national tournament debut. They’ll battle 5th-seeded University of Wisconsin in a 10:30 am start (7:30 am Arizona time), and a win over the Badgers will send them to a 2nd-round matchup against either top-seeded University of Oregon or 8th-seeded Texas A&M University on Sunday. The other side of the bracket features #2 East Carolina University, 3rd-seeded Florida State University, 6th-seeded Iowa State University and 7th-seeded Penn State University. The championship game will be played on Thursday, May 31st at 4 pm Arizona time.