By Bob Romantic
GCU News Bureau
Talk to any player or coach on the Grand Canyon University baseball team for more than two minutes, and two words invariably will come out of their mouths: “pitching” and “defense.”
It’s a mantra that Coach Andy Stankiewicz has espoused since he arrived in 2011-12, and it’s the main reason the Antelopes have reached the College World Series for the first time in 15 years at the NCAA Division II level (and the first time at any level since reaching the NAIA World Series in 1990).
“We stress pitching and defense. That’s our main priority,” said senior Derek Mendoza, the Antelopes’ leading hitter with a .370 average, 40 RBIs and 40 runs. “When a ground ball is hit, we make the play. When a fly ball is hit, we make the play.
“When you’re good at pitching and defense, you win a lot of one-run ballgames. And when you play good teams, that’s usually what you get – one-run ballgames.”
GCU (39-17) won five of six games last weekend to win the West Regional in St. George, Utah, and advance to the College World Series. Only one was a one-run game, but the rest were mostly close contests with scores such as 6-2, 4-1 and 9-6.
During the season, the Antelopes were 16-6 in games decided by one or two runs.
“It’s the West Coast style of baseball that the UC Irvines and Cal State Fullertons of the world have used,” said Ryan Ruiz, GCU’s hitting coach. “We spend countless hours doing defensive drills and working on skill sets and pitchers doing PFPs (pitchers fielding practice) and bunt plays and all the stuff that takes place in a championship environment.”
Case in point: When the Antelopes got back in town this week to begin preparations for the College World Series, the first thing the players did when they hit the practice field was go through situational base-running drills.
That kind of emphasis means Ruiz, as hitting coach, sometimes takes a bit of a back seat during practices, which is just fine with him. He still remembers games like a 28-19 victory in the NJCAA College World Series semifinals in 2008 when he was head coach at Central Arizona College.
College World Series At Cary, N.C.
(All Arizona times)
Game 1: Franklin Pierce vs. Shippensburg, 10 a.m. Saturday
Game 2: Grand Valley State vs. Minnesota State Mankato, 2 p.m. Saturday
Game 3: Tampa vs. Coker, 10 a.m. Sunday
Game 4: Grand Canyon vs. St. Edward's, 2 p.m. Sunday
Note: If GCU wins its first game, it will play the Game 3 winner at 4 p.m. Tuesday. If GCU loses its opener, it plays the Game 3 loser at noon Tuesday.
Follow from home: Webcasts from all games are available by going to www.gculopes.com.
“In college baseball, there was a time in the early 2000s and ‘90s that everybody wanted to bang baseballs around the yard and hit home runs and all that stuff,” Ruiz said. “That 28-19 game, it was unbelievable. But, even as an offensive guy, to me that’s not baseball. To have a 5-4 ballgame or 3-2 or 6-4 where pitching and defense really matter, that’s fun.”
The resurgence of GCU baseball, in just two years under Stankiewicz, is a testament to that philosophy. The Antelopes won four NAIA national titles in the 1980s and later became a Division I program, winning the Western Athletic Conference North Division in 1998. In its storied history, the program has produced players such as Tim Salmon and Chad Curtis as well as current big-leaguer Cody Ransom of the Chicago Cubs.
But since the University joined Division II in 1999, the baseball program never had won a playoff game before this year and hadn’t been to the postseason since 2002.
“The legacy and tradition of Grand Canyon baseball is great,” Stankiewicz said. “I can’t tell you how many texts I’ve gotten from alumni and ex-players who are excited about where we’re at. We wanted to restore that pride in them that this is a legitimate college baseball program.”
They’ve done it, of course, with pitching and defense -- and a group of players who have bought into that philosophy.
“It takes a kid that is willing to pay the price,” Stankiewicz said. “If you’re not willing to pay the price, that’s OK, our program is not for everybody and I’m not the right head coach for some players. There are other programs for them. … But we have a certain standard here we demand, and I’m going to continue to demand it.
“And this group of guys right here, they want to be part of something special and want to have a legacy. They want to be part of that tradition.”
Contact Bob Romantic at 639.7611 or [email protected].