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GCU sent to Arizona for 1st NCAA DI tourney

26 Th11 2021 | 04:39

Even through Grand Canyon baseball is heading for its first NCAA Division I tournament, the site and opponents will ring familiar.

GCU (39-19-1) and national No. 5 seed Arizona (40-15) will play a rubber match for their regular-season split when the Lopes and Wildcats face off at 7 p.m. Friday in the Tucson Regional. The game will be live-streamed on ESPN3 after the team gathered in a GCU Arena room on Monday morning to watch the ESPN2 NCAA Selection Show’s pairing and site revelations.

“It’s exciting to be a part of it,” Lopes head coach Andy Stankiewicz said. “That’s the design, that’s the dream when you first start. Get to a regional. You’ve got to get there first before you can get to the next step. I’m excited for the guys to be a part of this. It’s something our guys will never forget.”

When the Lopes and Wildcats met April 13 at GCU Ballpark, GCU won 5-4 in 10 innings on a walk-off home run by senior shortstop Channy Ortiz. Arizona avenged the loss on May 4 with a 13-2 victory at Hi Corbett Field, where the double-elimination, four-team regional will be staged this weekend. The Wildcats rank fourth nationally for batting average (.325) and runs per game (8.7) and go against a GCU pitching staff that ranks 29th nationally for ERA (3.85).

“Obviously, it’s a great opponent,” Stankiewicz said of the Pac-12 champion. “We know that. Everybody knows that. University of Arizona has had a fantastic season. They’re as balanced of a team as we’ve faced all year long. We certainly have our work cut out for us. We suspected that that’s where we’d be going. Hey, we’re in it. Let’s go. We’re excited to head down to Tucson and get after it.

“It’s a value for us because it won’t be a new stadium. We played there this year and a lot of the guys have played there in the past as well. That’s certainly going to provide a feeling of ‘Hey, we’ve been there before. We’ve played at Hi Corbett. We know what this opponent’s about.’ ”

The Tucson Regional also includes Oklahoma State (35-17-1) and UC Santa Barbara (39-18). GCU played a three-game series at Oklahoma State on March 5-7, taking a 4-4 tie in the series finale that had a travel curfew after the Cowboys posted 11-5 and 3-0 wins. GCU is 4-4-1 against Oklahoma State since 2017.

The Lopes knew they would be in the 64-team field as an automatic qualifier by winning the WAC Tournament on Saturday night. They did not know who or where they would be playing until Monday morning, when they burst into applause when “Grand Canyon” was posted on the ESPN2 bracket.

“I was literally getting goosebumps the whole time,” Lopes senior shortstop Channy Ortiz said. “Just waiting for our name was a cool feeling. We knew our name was going to be up there and we were just waiting, waiting, waiting. It was really exciting.”

The Lopes have played at Hi Corbett Field in four of the past five seasons, missing the trip to Tucson last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s just exciting to play a team from Arizona and not go too far,” said senior catcher David Avitia, a Phoenix Alhambra graduate who is one of 24 Arizona high school products on the GCU roster. “All our fans can be there, all our family and friends. Anybody could be there just because we’re so close to them.

“We’re a very confident team and, overall, I feel like it’s a good feeling to know that we’ve played them and we know what they have. But they also, at the same time, know what we have and know what they’re up against.”

GCU enters the NCAA tournament after winning 25 of its past 30 games and going through the past two weekend series with steep implications. The Lopes clinched a co-regular-season championship in a series against California Baptist and then won three consecutive WAC Tournament games, including two in which GCU trailed 4-1 and won 5-4.

“This team has some older guys and this team has some younger guys,” Stankiewicz said. “It’s balanced on the mound. I think we’re set up well. I think the guys understand that balanced baseball, fundamentally good baseball is what’s going to take moving forward. It’s going to be a big challenge, but I think we’re built for it and I think we’re ready for it.”

Oklahoma State, the region’s No. 2 seed, and UCSB, the No. 3 seed, will precede GCU-UA with a 1 p.m. game Friday. The winners and losers of Friday’s games will be paired for Saturday games at Hi Corbett Field. The region’s winner would advance to a Super Regional against the winner of the Oxford Regional, hosted by No. 12 national seed Ole Miss. The last time Arizona hosted a regional, the Wildcats went on to win the 2012 College World Series.

GCU is one of four baseball programs making its NCAA Championship debut this weekend.

“There’s more to be done,” Lopes senior center fielder Brock Burton said. “The job’s not finished. We just can’t wait to play baseball and that’s what we do.”