Baseball, softball teams aim to win WAC
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
As with other Grand Canyon University sports in the school’s first year in NCAA Division I, the schedules for baseball and softball received a serious upgrade.
The baseball team went from facing Fresno Pacific to taking on 2008 NCAA champion Fresno State and from Academy of Art to 2012 champion Arizona. The softball team traded in the likes of Regis and Northwest Nazarene for No. 1-ranked Alabama and No. 7 Arizona.
GCU’s gaudy 2013 records in Division II – each team went 40-19, and baseball had a 20-game winning streak – aren’t going to be repeated, but the 2014 results are hardly embarrassing. The baseball team is 16-14, softball is 19-17, both are tied for second place in the Western Athletic Conference in their first year in the league and, best of all, the baseball team defeated Arizona, 3-1, in Tucson.
Not bad. Not bad at all.
Big series await both teams this weekend. Baseball is home against first-place Sacramento State at Brazell Stadium (6:30 p.m. Friday, 1:30 Saturday, 12:30 Sunday), and softball is at Utah Valley, its co-tenant in second place, for a doubleheader Friday and a single game Saturday. The following weekend, first-place New Mexico State comes to GCU for a softball showdown (doubleheader Friday evening, April 18, single game April 19).
While he’s far from satisfied with his baseball team’s record and doesn’t want to put too much emphasis on one game, Coach Andy Stankiewicz won’t deny that it was sweet when the Antelopes scored two runs in the ninth inning to defeat Arizona on March 18 in the teams’ first meeting in 11 years.
“I think it was important for respect because our guys know their players,” Stankiewicz said. “They’re buddies. They talk. They text. There was a little talk over the airwaves before we played them. I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, but at the same time I’m happy for our guys. It felt good to show we can play with a top-level D-I program.”
First baseman Michael Pomeroy admitted he “had that game circled on the calendar forever” but, reflecting Stankiewicz’s coaching philosophy, downplayed its significance once it was over. “We took it as any other win, but the bus ride home was a lot sweeter,” said Pomeroy, who went 3-for-4 that day.
Pitcher Jorge Perez, who pitched a perfect ninth inning to make sure it was a happy trip, admitted, “It gave us a little boost of confidence. We were still figuring ourselves out a little bit.”
What they have figured out is that they need to hit line drives on offense (they have only five home runs all season), continue to get solid pitching (the staff has a 3.28 earned-run average) and catch the ball with the consistency expected by Stankiewicz, whom Pomeroy called “one of the best defensive minds around.”
Pomeroy and Perez said Stankiewicz didn’t even bring up the move to D-I during preseason workouts. “He didn’t want to put any pressure on us,” Pomeroy said. “I think that helped a lot.”
Stankiewicz had a simple reason. While he acknowledges that some D-I players are going to be able to do more things well than those in D-II, he doesn’t see a huge difference in the way the game is played.
“We don’t teach them to hit differently because they’re in D-I,” he said. “Coach (Nathan) Choate didn’t teach a D-II changeup instead of a D-I changeup. If you believe in your system, if you believe in your style, you’ll be successful.”
Softball coach Ann Pierson, on the other hand, felt she needed to get in her players’ heads right away last fall to make sure they were prepared for what was ahead.
“My expectations were higher,” she said. “If we had a flat practice or flat scrimmage, I was livid. I’d tell them, ‘I’m already in February. Come join me.’”
Junior outfielder Haley Walker said, “It makes sense now. But back then it was like, ‘Hey, what’s going on? This is the fall. This is supposed to be fun.’”
Once the season began, they lost three of their first four and seven of 11 before a four-game winning streak against Southern Utah and Nevada got them going. Yes, they lost to Alabama 13-4 and twice to Arizona (both 5-0), but the games weren’t as lopsided as the scores indicate and Pierson and her players were heartened by what they heard from opposing coaches afterward, things like, “I like how you’re playing. You’re going to have a good year.”
Walker noticed it in the way the demeanor of those teams changed during the game as GCU played to its strength, which is to play “small ball” and try to create runs with scrappiness and good fundamentals. “It was really great to have other teams look at us like, ‘Don’t you know who we are?’” she said.
Pierson is pleased with her team’s “level of fight” and also is happy that other teams aren’t using their No. 2 pitchers against GCU anymore – now it’s almost all aces. And GCU has been fortunate to have an ace of its own, senior Stephanie Pesqueira, who allowed just one run in 12 innings last weekend at Cal State Bakersfield, raising her record to 10-7 with a 2.75 ERA, and was named WAC Pitcher of the Week.
Pesqueira has thrived despite facing lineups loaded with far more good hitters than she saw last year, when she was 21-12 with a 1.89 ERA. She quickly got used to pitching to more advanced hitters who will crush a fastball thrown in the wrong location.
“I’ve come a long way. I’ve kind of surprised myself,” she said. “I’ve accomplished a lot of my goals.”
Keith Baker, GCU’s director of athletics, doesn’t want to say he’s surprised by the better-than-average showing by both teams, maybe because he kind of expected it. Baker said his study of other schools that have made the transition to D-I showed that teams often have a decent record in the first year, stumble a little in the second year and then struggle even more in year No. 3. Recruiting can be difficult when players know they’ll have to wait awhile to compete in the NCAA tournament – transitioning schools aren’t eligible for four years.
“I tell the coaches it’s a process,” Baker said. “You don’t want to get too excited about winning or too down about losing.”
But there’s no denying that it would be gratifying if the baseball team (6-3 in the WAC) can at least take two of three from Sacramento State (9-0) this weekend and if the softball team (4-2 in the WAC) can have a good weekend at Utah Valley (4-2) to set up a battle for first place with New Mexico State (5-1).
Pomeroy predicted that in future years the baseball team is “going to win the WAC until they kick us out and make us find another conference,” while Walker and Pesqueira talked about how playing at the D-I level has raised the softball team’s expectations as well. “It’s more in the perspective of how much each person grows,” Walker said.
And as we all know, GCU is no stranger to growth … or serious upgrades.
Contact Rick Vacek at 639.8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.