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Battle-tested Lopes ready for NCAA regional

26 Th11 2021 | 04:41

Grand Canyon University is making its first NCAA Division I baseball postseason appearance, heading into what many consider the toughest field of the 16 regionals in the NCAA tournament. The Lopes are doing so as the No. 4 seed in the double-elimination, four-team Tucson Regional. And their first game is against a University of Arizona team that is the top seed in the regional and carries a No. 5 national seeding among the 64 teams in the NCAA tournament.

None of which fazes the battle-tested Lopes, who embark on this postseason journey filled with confidence.

“Our guys know how to play. They showed that all year,” said GCU’s Andy Stankiewicz, the WAC Coach of the Year whose team split a pair of games against Arizona during the regular season. “They put in the time and the work and believe we can play with anybody. That’s by design in the way we schedule and build our program. We don’t just want to be a good mid-Division I program. We want to be a good Division I program.”

GCU (39-19-1) gets an opportunity to show that when it opens play in the Tucson Regional at 7 p.m. Friday against Arizona (40-15) at Hi Corbett Field. No. 2 Oklahoma State (35-17-1) faces No. 3 UC Santa Barbara in the early game Friday. Winners of the Friday games will square off at 7 p.m. Saturday, while the losers will play in an elimination game at 1 p.m. Saturday.

Tucson Regional bracket: https://www.ncaa.com/brackets/baseball/d1/2021/regionals/105

Arizona, the Pac-12 champion, ranks fourth nationally in team batting average (.325) and runs per game (8.7) with two hitters (Jacob Berry and Daniel Susac) who were named to the Collegiate Baseball All-America team. Oklahoma State, a perennial NCAA tournament team, reached the Big 12 championship game and has an RPI ranked 14th in the country. And UCSB, with a deep pitching staff, was competitive in games against Pac-12 foes UCLA and Oregon, both of which are in the NCAA tournament.

Four of seven writers at DIbaseball.com tabbed the Tucson Regional as the toughest in the country. Collegebaseball.info had Tucson listed as the second toughest, while calling GCU “one of the toughest four seeds in the tournament.”

There are numerous reasons for that Lopes’ reputation – and their optimism heading into the regional. Here are three of them:

1. Pierson Ohl

Ohl headlines a deep staff of GCU starting pitchers. The second-team All-American and WAC Pitcher of the Year is 10-1 with a 2.36 ERA and 100 strikeouts to just 12 walks in 95 1/3 innings.

“Very good pitcher,” Arizona coach Jay Johnson said of Ohl, who did not pitch against the Wildcats in the teams’ two regular-season games. “Throws a ton of strikes. He’s a very confident kid.”

Ohl has been at his best in big games. In three games this season against Power 5 teams (Missouri, Oklahoma State and Oregon State), Ohl had a 1.83 ERA in 19 2/3 innings. And in the WAC tournament semifinals against second-seeded Sacramento State, he threw a three-hit shutout over seven innings of an 11-0 victory. Even in his only loss of the year, against Oklahoma State, Ohl surrendered just one run on four hits and no walks while striking out eight in seven innings.

Stankiewicz said that’s a reflection of how hard Ohl has worked to hone his craft, adding a breaking ball to his repertoire this year to complement a fastball and changeup. Pitchers who are successful in big moments “just stay within themselves and they don’t try to be someone they’re not,” Stankiewicz said. “He understands how to pitch.”

Stankiewicz saved Ohl for the second game of the WAC tournament against Sacramento State rather than pitch him in the opener, but has not yet revealed his pitching lineup for the Tucson Regional.

Arizona won’t announce its Game 1 starting pitcher until Friday, but it will likely be either Chase Silseth (8-1, 5.29 ERA, 89 strikeouts, 24 walks in 83.1 innings pitched) or Garrett Irvin (5-2, 3.93, 61 Ks, 33 walks in 75.2 IP).

2. Bullpen

Ohl was MVP of the WAC tournament after his dominating performance against Sacramento State. But, collectively, the bullpen may have been even more important. In the Lopes’ two other victories, they were able to overcome a pair of 4-1 deficits thanks to a bullpen that threw 12 2/3 scoreless innings during the tournament.

Closer Frankie Scalzo (2.25 ERA, 12 saves) and Coen Wynne (2.55 ERA) anchor the back end of the bullpen, while Nick Hull (1.56 ERA) and Connor Markl (6.98 ERA) were instrumental in long relief roles that gave GCU’s hitters time to mount comebacks in 5-4 victories over both New Mexico State and UTRGV.

“This is the most competitive group of guys I have ever been a part of,” Scalzo said. “We compete with one another day in and day out and I think it shows on the field.

“People for sure sleep on us. I don’t think people understand how good and how well-put together we are. You can look at our bullpen core and list the seniors that are there. But we have a bunch of freshmen that we build off of also.”

3. Nonconference schedule

Stankiewicz has always scheduled tough nonconference games to prepare GCU for postseason play. This year, the Lopes split two midweek games against Arizona, winning at home 5-4 in 10 innings on April 13 before losing at Arizona, 13-2, on May 4 – games in which neither team threw their normal weekend starting pitchers.

GCU also split two games against Arizona State and dropped the first two games of a series against Oklahoma State before settling for a 4-4 tie in the finale after the Cowboys hit a two-out ninth-inning solo homer and the game was called due to a travel curfew.

“Those are great challenges,” Stankiewicz said of the tough nonconference schedule. “And I am encouraged by the way our guys met those challenges. More than anything else, our guys walked away knowing they can compete with anybody. … They understood we were playing those games for a reason, to prepare for this moment.”

Senior center fielder Brock Burton, who made several key defensive plays in the WAC tournament, said nonconference victories over teams like Arizona give the team confidence heading into the regional.

“We like to compete against the best of the best,” Burton said. “Doing it early in the season, I think we got a chance to see where we stacked up against those teams. Now we have an opportunity to send them home.”

In the past three years, the Lopes are 4-5-1 against the teams competing in the Tucson Regional. In other words, they’re not just “happy to be here” as they compete in their first D-I NCAA tournament.

“I tell the guys all the time there are no guarantees in life,” Stankiewicz said. “I am proud of the guys and what they have accomplished. At the same time, we have an opportunity to do something really special and those opportunities don’t come around very often. We’ve come too far. If we stay focused, have great energy and a great belief in ourselves… let’s go.”