During the offseason, Greg Luca, who covers UT-Rio Grande Valley, and Mark Rudi, who covers New Mexico State, came on the College Baseball Central Podcast, and while most of the focus was on talking about the respective programs they cover, the discussion also turned to the WAC baseball hierarchy, and more specifically, how the conference seems to be in search of a marquee program now that conference realignment has settled down, at least for now.
Several programs came up over the course of the conversation as candidates, but one came up more than any other, and that was Grand Canyon.
To be fair, GCU is already pretty consistently successful in the conference. They’ve been in the WAC for four seasons, putting up 19-8, 19-7, 13-14, and 20-4 league records. And as far as overall record goes, they’ve only had one season where they’ve finished with a sub-.500 mark, and that was the 2016 season that also saw them finish under .500 in WAC play.
What’s been missing is that thing by which we most often measure program success, and that’s NCAA Tournament appearances, through no fault of their own. To this point, as part of their transition up to Division I, GCU has been ineligible for postseason play. So even in a season like 2017, when their 20-4 record was good enough to win the league’s regular season title, the Antelopes were shut out.
Beginning in 2018, however, they’ll have postseason eligibility for the first time, and it’s easy to see a scenario where they quickly become mainstays in NCAA regionals.
The program already has a foundation of success, and that’s been true from the moment they became a DI program. So many new DI programs have that initial season or two where they put up a win total in the teens or low-20s before they really get their feet under them, but that just never happened as GCU was transitioning. That’s huge as the coaching staff works to sell the program as more than a flash in the pan to prospective recruits.
They’ve also got geography on their side, as their location in Phoenix puts them squarely in the middle of one of the premier baseball hotbeds in the country. Sure, Arizona and Arizona State are going to scoop up much of the top-end talent in the area, but you could field a quality team just with the Phoenix-area players who were passed over by those two until the program is at a point where they can win some recruiting battles against bigger foes. This is a decided advantage over much of their WAC brethren, many of which are located in areas that aren’t nearly as rich in baseball talent.
Crucially, they’ll start the 2018 season in newly-renovated Brazell Stadium, which will given them a sparkling facility on a GCU campus that is becoming increasingly dotted with them. As part of the project, a second tier of seating will be added, helping to effectively double the seating capacity, the press box and concession area will be improved, and a berm will be incorporated.
It’s not just beat writers from rival programs that see the potential, either. On the Brazell Stadium page within the GCU athletic department website, several quotes from national media members echo the sentiment that the Lopes are on the rise, thanks in large part to the renovations to the facility.
“This looks incredible! Mid-major program with Omaha potential,” said ESPN analyst and Perfect Game contributor Mike Rooney. “Postseason eligible in ’18. Look out.”
Both of the most prominent writers with D1Baseball.com concur.
“Big-time facility coming for GCU baseball,” said Aaron Fitt. “I agree with Mike Rooney — expect big things ahead for the Lopes.”
And Kendall Rogers added “Outstanding commitment from GCU Lopes. The facilities arms race rages on.”
Heading into 2018, there are certainly some key pieces that will need to be replaced, but there’s enough holdover talent on campus that you can easily foresee a scenario where GCU competes to get into a regional in their first season of eligibility.
Offensively, leading hitter Tom Lerouge (.349) will be missed, as will top home run hitter Garrison Schwartz (8 HR), but a returning nucleus of Austin Bull (.339/.436/.404), Ian Evans (.323/.407/.485, 15 2B, 5 HR, 46 RBI), Tyler Wyatt (.309/.388/.408), Zach Malis (.285/.346/.382), and Preston Pavlica (.280/.392/.510, 12 2B) is a nice start on the way to a stout offensive attack.
Pitching was a bigger struggle for GCU in 2017, but that unit could be improved in 2018 thanks to the return of the entirety of their weekend rotation from last season in Jake Repavich (6-4, 3.80 ERA, 57/16 K/BB, 87.2 IP), Jake Wong (5-3, 4.00 ERA, .258 OBA), and Jack Schneider (7-0, 4.11 ERA, .234 OBA). Repavich and Wong were weekend starters from the start of the 2017 season, while Schneider was inserted partway through the year and started on the final nine weekends of the season, to significant success.
Key bullpen piece A.J. Franks might be gone, but Mick Vorhof has shown potential. In 33.1 innings out of the bullpen last year, he struck out 32, walked 12, saved four games, and had a 4.32 ERA. He did have a .299 opponent batting average, so if he can become a little bit tougher to square up in 2018, he can be a real weapon on the back end of games.
Simply put, there are a solid handful of teams in the WAC who look very capable of becoming regulars at the top of the WAC. New Mexico State has had recent success, Sacramento State has been to two regionals in four seasons, Seattle and Utah Valley have had quality teams in recent years, and UTRGV looks very capable of becoming a real threat.
But there’s no program in the WAC that has as much going for it right now as Grand Canyon, and that will make them fun to watch in 2018 and beyond.