The young’uns on the GCU baseball diamond are growing up under the watchful eye of former major leaguer Andy Stankiewicz, now in his sixth season as head baseball coach at Grand Canyon University.
A quick look at this season’s schedule seems to bear out that theory of a group of players rapidly maturing.
The Antelopes were the youngest team in the Western Athletic Conference last year. At times, there could be eight players on the field that were underclassmen. The result of having all that youth in the lineup was a 25-28-1 season, 13-14 in the WAC.
That’s a significant fall from the first-place finish in 2015 and runner-up the year before.
Seventy percent of the offensive production returned from last year’s squad, but the learning curve appeared to be continuing into the start of this season. But, by the time conference play rolled around in late March, the youngsters were beginning to get the hang of things.
They swept CSU Bakersfield in their three-game WAC opener, then swept Northern Colorado a week later before dropping their first game. That first loss was to Sacramento State, but the Lopes still won the three-game series.
And so it went. A 9-6 win over Seattle University last Sunday gave the Lopes their seventh straight series win in WAC play.
With just three losses on the conference schedule, the 18-3 Lopes are sitting alone atop the WAC standings.
But getting into that rhythm took a lot of work over a lot of weeks. They lost six of their first eight games and suffered through a five-game losing streak and a four-game losing streak trying to get through March.
They finished the non-conference schedule 6-20.
But then Stankiewicz, who spent seven years playing for three different MLB teams, must have found the switch that turned the tables. They not only swept their first two conference series, but in between went down to Tucson and held their own with the big boys.
Had it not been for a three-run fourth inning by the Wildcats, the Lopes might have returned with a huge upset over a University of Arizona team that was ranked No. 13 in the nation and featured the third-ranked offense, averaging better than nine runs a game.
The 3-2 loss against a Pac-12 power probably built more confidence than a win against a lesser team.
And they just kept picking up momentum from there. The Lopes have won five of their last seven games and averaged just a tick over 10 runs a game during that stretch. In their opener with Seattle last Saturday, they piled up 17 runs to post a 19-0 victory, the largest shut-out win in 13 years.
And in the series finale Sunday they collected 14 hits, with nine starters each contributing at least one hit. That’s the 11th straight conference game in which the Lopes have posted double-digit hits.
There are just three more conference games left on the schedule, an away series with Utah Valley. One more series sweep and they will be assured of finishing the 2017 season atop the WAC standings.
Since they’re finishing up a four-year transition to full membership in Division I, they won’t be able to participate in the NCAA Tournament yet. But a conference crown will be nice – and it will provide some great momentum for next year, when this group will become a veteran ball club as they step into a landmark season in the program’s history.
To give them something else to look forward to, the school will have a brand new 3,500-seat stadium ready for the 2018 season. The new facility will sit on the footprint of the current Brazell Stadium and will add seating for 2,000 more spectators who want to be there to welcome the Lopes to the next level of collegiate competition.
Like this year’s roster, the 64-year-old baseball program is also finally coming of age.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)