Story by Evan Oscherwitz
2021 has proven itself to be a year of milestones for Grand Canyon University’s athletic department.
Friday, less than three months after the university’s men’s basketball team made its first ever March Madness appearance, the baseball program will see its first NCAA tournament action as it faces off against the University of Arizona in the opening game of the Tucson regional.
“We’re here to win,” GCU head coach Andy Stankiewicz said. “That’s our goal and that’s our intent but understanding too that the big picture is about experience. More than anything else, I want [the players] just to experience something special.”
Friday’s game will mark the third meeting of the season between the WAC champion ‘Lopes and the PAC-12 champion Wildcats. GCU beat Arizona 5-4 in extra innings on Apr. 13 and the Wildcats fired back with a 13-2 blowout win at home on May 4.
THE FINAL OUT! WAC CHAMPS! #LopesUp pic.twitter.com/EcX35jp6IX
— Grand Canyon Baseball 🏆 (@GCU_Baseball) May 30, 2021
While the two teams split their home-and-home series during the regular season, Arizona enters Friday’s contest as a heavy favorite.
The Wildcats’ .325 team batting average and 8.7 runs per game average both rank fourth best in the nation, and they boast an excellent 27-7 home record to boot. Nevertheless, the ‘Lopes strongly believe in their ability to pull off an upset victory.
“We beat them, and we know we can beat them again,” GCU junior outfielder Brock Burton said. “I think we have every right to believe that we can win this thing.”
Although Arizona’s high-octane offense will present a sizable challenge for GCU’s pitching staff, the ‘Lopes have good reason to feel confident heading into the biggest game in program history.
GCU not only dominated the WAC during the regular season and conference tournament, but also held their own against a very tough group of non-conference opponents that included Arizona, Oklahoma State, Oregon State and Missouri.
“We wouldn’t have it any other way,” Burton said. “We like to compete against the best of the best and doing it early in the season, I think we kind of got a chance to see where we stacked up against those teams and now, we have an opportunity to send them home.”
If GCU hopes to make its first taste of NCAA tournament baseball a lengthy one, the ‘Lopes pitching corps will have to lead the charge. During the team’s seamless three-game run through the WAC tournament, GCU allowed a total of only eight runs and at one point put together a streak of 12 straight scoreless innings.
While it is unlikely that the pitching staff will be able to achieve the same level of play against a prolific offensive team like Arizona, GCU will have an excellent chance to win if they can even come close.
Tournament bullpen ERA = 0.00000000. #LopesUp pic.twitter.com/T3CKkzHfGZ
— Grand Canyon Baseball 🏆 (@GCU_Baseball) May 31, 2021
“You can’t afford to give [Arizona] freebies,” Stankiewicz said. “If you give them free bases or don’t play defense well, you’re going to find yourself in a tough spot. You’ve got to minimize the big inning with them, and that’s what we did [in the first meeting]. We’ve got to understand that they’re going to score. We’ve just got to hopefully play great defense and make big pitches when we need them.”
It would be easy for a team in GCU’s position to get caught up in the thrill of reaching the NCAA postseason for the first time, but the ‘Lopes aspire to do more than simply show up.
Their appearance in the tournament is 68 years in the making, and there is no guarantee that they will be back in the near future. The players recognize that this may be their only chance to play on collegiate baseball’s biggest stage, and they are determined to make it last.
“This is the most competitive group of guys I think I’ve ever been a part of,” junior relief pitcher Frankie Scalzo said. “We’re here to do something special.”