Story by Michael Ferraresi
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
Players on Grand Canyon University’s baseball team recite their goal like a mantra that has been ingrained in their psyches.
Never mind batting averages or earned runs. Disregard the last game’s box score. Ignore the pro scouts who sometimes congregate in the seats behind home plate. The team’s immediate goal is simple: win the Western Athletic Conference, shock some established teams in the process and build the framework for a program that can contend for the College World Series when it becomes eligible in 2018.
When he took over before the 2012 season, former big-leaguer Andy Stankiewicz brought a rebuilding mentality to the baseball program but took the team to the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship in just his second year as coach. Now, in its second year of the four-year transition process to Division I, GCU has already established itself as one of the top teams in the WAC and a team that can compete with anyone at the D-I level.
Since its inaugural season in the WAC last year, the baseball team has played upset artist against top D-I opponents and placed players in nationally recognized summer leagues. Meanwhile, Brazell Stadium has developed a GCU Arena-like energy for home games, making it more enjoyable for students and more aggravating for opponents.
Stankiewicz said the hooting, hollering and heckling from students who have trekked to Brazell from their residence halls or classrooms helps the team maintain its laser focus on winning the WAC.
“That’s kind of been the dream since we got here and why we loved the idea of having the stadium right on campus. The louder they are, the better,” said Stankiewicz, a longtime infielder who ended his seven-year MLB career with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998.
GCU players talk about how, 20 years from now, whether they work in baseball or not, they will reflect on being part of the teams that reshaped the program.
Aside from the dream to play for throngs of enthusiastic fans, the Lopes also consider the CWS in Omaha, Neb., an attainable longterm goal. Stankiewicz played for Pepperdine from 1983 to 1986 and appeared in the CWS regionals twice, though his club was eliminated by Stanford and Arizona.
He later coached in Omaha as an assistant at Arizona State, but those teams also fell short in national-title bids. Still, those experiences shaped him as a competitor and coach.
“It’s something I’d love for the guys to experience someday,” Stankiewicz said. “It’s a dream of mine to take Grand Canyon to the College World Series, and it should be a dream for every player and coach here.”
The WAC era
Moving up to D-I meant taking on stiffer competition, mainly in nonconference games.
This season, the Lopes swept a three-game series at Cal Poly, which made the CWS regionals in the past two seasons. At Brazell, GCU shut out UNLV and split a two-game series with Kansas before losing six of seven games during a challenging stretch at Tennessee, Oklahoma State and UNLV. Last year, the Lopes upset Arizona and UC Irvine, which have a combined six national tournament appearances since 2010.
Stankiewicz, ever focused on his team’s collective character, said he wants his players to leave GCU with a degree and with memories of key victories like those.
“It’s about understanding that we can play with anyone in the country,” said Stankiewicz, who last year was named Coach of the Year for leading the 18-and-under U.S. national team to a gold medal in the Pan American Games in Mexico.
“I’m not ashamed to say that, and I’m not trying to be bragging or boastful. If you have a guy on the mound throwing strikes and you have a competitive lineup that knows what do with bats in their hands, you can sneak up on some people.”
This year’s offensive standouts include junior shortstop Paul Panaccione and senior second baseman Chad De La Guerra — solid defenders who provide run production in the heart of the Lopes’ lineup from traditionally light-hitting positions.
Also getting off to a good start this season was the entire starting outfield, which included junior transfer Brandon Smith, a cleanup hitter drafted by the Washington Nationals at his previous university, senior base-stealer David Walker and freshman Garrison Schwartz.
WAC conference play began this spring with the Lopes sweeping a three-game home series from North Dakota, preparing them for eight weeks of conference play. It will be capped by a May 14-16 road trip to Sacramento State, which won the 2014 WAC title and beat ASU in the CWS regionals last spring.
Stankiewicz and his assistants, each of whom has CWS experience as a player or coach, often remind their players that if Sac State can do it, so can the Lopes.
“Stank is that kind of guy,” said De La Guerra, a junior college transfer from California. “He’s always pushing us.”
Shaping a national program
Andrew Naderer, GCU’s No. 1 starter this season, said the coaching staff helps keep him and other players focused more on team wins than impressing scouts.
When senior ace Jorge Perez, a New York Yankees draft pick who returned to GCU rather than sign a professional contract, suffered an injury early in the season, Naderer and other pitchers stepped up.
Naderer also turned a temporary assignment in the prestigious collegiate wood-bat Cape Cod Baseball League into a full-time summer gig, earning a spot in the league’s all-star game among the NCAA’s top talent. He was the first GCU player ever placed on a Cape League roster. Stankiewicz wants to get more Lopes in similar national summer leagues to expose them to the best players in the country, bolster their confidence and expand recognition of GCU’s program.
Stankiewicz’s staff recruited Naderer from Arcadia High in Phoenix, and the junior left-hander said, “The biggest draw for me was the coaching staff. The relationship I had with them right when they walked into my house and talked to me, I just knew they had me and my best interests in mind, not just for baseball, but in life.”
Mike Vaught, GCU’s vice president of athletics, credited University staff for creating more buzz around Brazell this season. By the end of March, the stadium already had exceeded last year’s total attendance. Promotional giveaways such as free hot dogs and black T-shirts for a “Black Out Night” have helped build the student fan base to a crowd that for years included more parents and girlfriends of players than casual fans.
The 35th Avenue parking garage that looms beyond Brazell’s rightfield wall has become something of a symbol for the program, too. Fans tailgate on the top floor and drape signs off the facade, which the athletic department took note of and duplicated with a huge “Game Day” baseball banner.
“When you’re trying to get that program image up to where you want it, the marketing and customer service factors into helping Andy build that championship program,” said Vaught, who believes the baseball program is among the most likely to claim GCU’s first D-I title. “With the recruiting class they have coming in, with the way they manage the program, I think they’re off to a good start.”
As the old baseball adage suggests, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. But with the right perspective, Omaha really isn’t that far away, after all.