Lopes to face Florida State in 1st round after winning NCBA SoPac Regional Championship for 2nd straight year
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
Different makeup. Different route taken. Same result.
Expecting a much tougher road than their 2018 quest at the tournament, the Grand Canyon University Club Baseball team instead found a surprisingly easy route to winning their 2nd consecutive National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) Southern Pacific (SoPac) Division I Regional Championship at Antelope Valley College in Lancaster, California. The 2nd-seeded Lopes trailed for just one inning in the three games they played over the three-day, four-team tournament, invoking the 10-run mercy rule in both their opening-round, 10-0 win in seven innings over 3rd-seeded Sonoma State University Friday afternoon; and their eight-inning, 12-2 semifinal win Saturday morning over top-seeded University of California-Santa Barbara. The Lopes finished out their undefeated run to the title by building a six-run lead Sunday morning in the championship game in a rematch with UCSB, then holding on for a 7-6 victory over the Gauchos to grab the crown. The win sends the Lopes to Holly Springs, North Carolina and the 2019 NCBA Division I World Series for the second year in a row.
“When we were leaving North Carolina after last year’s tournament, and the NCBA officials said, ‘Hey, we’ll see you next year,’ I looked at them funny because I don’t think they realize how hard it is to get out of the West!“ said Lopes’ Head Coach Rich Warnol. “The teams out here are tough. We were able to do it with a different style of team, and it was pretty special for these guys to do it the way they did.”
A month ago, just being in central California for regionals seemed like a far-fetched idea for the Lopes, who were bogged down in 3rd place in the SoPac South Conference standings with nine games remaining. A resurgence of offense – coupled with the shoring up of the three-man starting rotation for the pitching staff – propelled GCU to three consecutive series sweeps. The final win of that streak – another mercy-rule victory over Northern Arizona University at Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark April 28 – secured another conference title for the Lopes and another trip to AVC.
The 2018 Lopes’ squad had to go the ‘long route’ for the regional title – losing their first game before running the table to win – yet Warnol expected that the 2019 four-team field would be even tougher to get through. It took Warnol a little less than 24 hours to find out he was wrong. Lopes’ Game 1 starting pitcher Nick Hershey set the tone for the tournament by allowing just two meaningless singles in seven innings of work to Sonoma State Friday, and only allowing one runner to get past second base in the 10-0 shutout. The Lopes took the lead for good in the 3rd inning by stringing together singles from Jason Ochoa, Taylor Brooks and David Macias to score one run, then brought two more home on a double by Azael Lopez-Chairez. The score remained the same until the 6th, when the Lopes used a SSU error, two walks and an RBI single by Ochoa to take a 4-0 edge. Then in the bottom of the 7th, the Lopes exploded, sending eight to the plate, and Easton Babe’s single up the middle scored Ochoa with the sixth run of the inning that ended the game.
Saturday’s semifinal was expected to be a tougher matchup, and it was… for about 45 minutes. UCSB took advantage of some early wildness by Lopes’ starter Matt McWilliams to combine a hit batter, walk and a fielding error with two singles to take a 2-0 lead after one inning. The lead lasted just long enough for Ochoa to lead off the 2nd with a double, then come home on Reid Magnaghi’s RBI single; and Magnaghi to cross the plate three batters later on a squeeze bunt by Johnny Campbell to tie it at 2-2. From there, the Lopes took advantage of what they were given to score multiple runs in each of the next three innings, combining four walks and two hit batters with eight hits over that stretch to take an 11-2 lead after five. The game was called in the 8th after a fielder’s choice on a Malik Flores grounder allowed Zach Broussely to score the 12th run, putting undefeated GCU in Sunday’s championship game. McWilliams rebounded from the shaky start to go the eight-inning distance, scattering six UCSB hits while throwing exactly 100 pitches.
After Santa Barbara stayed alive by eliminating Sonoma State Saturday, they headed into Sunday knowing they’d need two wins to capture the title. Lopes’ starting pitcher Eli Graham refused to give them a lot of hope, allowing two hits and no runs over the first five innings. That allowed GCU’s offense to build a 6-0 lead, since an RBI double from Campbell and RBI singles from Cody Hopper and Broussely in the 2nd staked the Lopes to three runs; then they matched that in the 5th with Broussely’s 2-run blast, and Magnaghi hitting a one-out double, then stealing 3rd and coming home on a wild pitch. The Gauchos finally got to Graham with 3 runs in the 6th to cut the deficit in half, but Ochoa’s single to center in the bottom of the frame cashed in Brooks to extend GCU’s lead back to four runs at 7-3. In the 9th, Lopes’ senior reliever Emilio Artica retired the first 2 men to face him, but UCSB rallied, using three walks, two stolen bases, a GCU fielding error and a double by UCSB’s Josh Harris to score three and put the tying run at second base. Artica finally worked out of the jam by getting UCSB’s Jack Coupart to ground out to short to preserve the 7-6 victory, and the celebration was on.
“This year’s team is so different from last year’s,” said Warnol. “I allowed these guys to be themselves with the leadership that took over, and when they play loose and are a little goofy at time, they do some things pretty well. They’ve proved it with the 12 straight wins, and that’s something special no matter what team you’re coaching.”
The Lopes now have thirteen days to prepare for their second straight appearance at 1800-seat Ting Stadium in Holly Springs, North Carolina, the site of this year’s NCBA DI World Series. The Lopes are again the 4th seed in the eight-team, double-elimination tournament, which commences play Friday morning, May 24. The 4th seed allows the Lopes to play the final first-round game on Saturday morning, May 25, against 5th-seeded Florida State University, the South Atlantic Region Champions. First pitch Saturday is scheduled for 10:30 am (7:30 am Arizona time), and a win over the Seminoles will send the Lopes to a 2nd-round matchup against either top-seeded University of Iowa or 8th-seeded University of Maryland on Sunday. The other side of the bracket features #2 Texas A&M University, 3rd-seeded University of Illinois, 6th-seeded Oregon State University and 7th-seeded Boston College. The championship game will be played on Thursday, May 30 at 4 pm Arizona time.