By Nick Aguilera
For years, Arizona has had two college baseball powerhouses: Arizona State University in the north and the University of Arizona in the south. With nine NCAA National Championships and almost 40 College World Series appearances between the two schools, the Sun Devils and Wildcats have dominated baseball in the desert. But five years ago, Grand Canyon University entered the fray to challenge those two schools as the best baseball program in the Copper State.
Since becoming an NCAA Division I school in 2015, the Lopes have already asserted their dominance in the Western Athletic Conference with two WAC championships in 2015, and 2017, already under their belt. Last season, GCU became postseason eligible for the first time since transitioning into a Division I school. Despite them being WAC regular-season champions, the Lopes lost early in the WAC Tournament and did not receive an at-large bid for a shot at their first national title. Although the program is still in its Division I infancy, those within believe that they can prove to be a college baseball powerhouse starting as early as 2019.
“We were a little disappointed in how last year ended up. We knew that we had to get after it and work hard this year. We’ve been working hard every day and training to be ready for that moment next season,” senior infielder Austin Bull said.
With ASU and Arizona both focusing their recruiting out of state, GCU has the upper hand when it comes to in-state commits. The Lopes have 22 Arizona recruits in a state that is increasingly becoming a hotbed for high school baseball talent. Despite not having the popularity of the other schools, GCU is carving its own identity with local talent and their own brand of baseball.
For senior utilityman Tyler Wyatt, the GCU coaches and their mantra was what attracted him the most. The local product out of Liberty High School in Peoria had offers to play close to home from both Arizona State and Arizona in 2015, but chose to attend the then-lesser-known GCU instead. Now a two-time All-WAC First Team member, Wyatt is the definition of the attitude at GCU.
“We’re hard-nosed and we grind everything out. We don’t have all the flashy things, all the gear everyone else gets. We get what we get, we run with it, and we play hard-nosed baseball. It’s not all about the glitz and the glamour. It’s just playing good baseball and trying to get to the end goal that everyone here set out for,” Wyatt said.
Bull, another local who played ball at Perry High School in Chandler prior to coming to GCU, explained how important it was for the seniors to transcend the team’s attitude to the younger players. He said that the team has grown over the past four years and that the 2019 squad is the “culmination” of everything they have been working toward since they first arrived on campus.
Much of GCU’s growth is credit to the coaching staff, especially head coach Andy Stankiewicz. Stankiewicz, a 7-year MLB vet and former coach in the Seattle Mariners organization, has been at the helm for the Lopes since 2012 and was named WAC Coach of the Year in 2017 and 2018. Since he took over, GCU has had 12 players selected in the MLB draft and 24 All-WAC first team selections. While the Lopes have had sustained success during his tenure (GCU has only had one losing season since Stankiewicz took over), they have yet to do one thing: make it into the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s very important to me. It’s what we play for. Everybody wants to get into the postseason and get into a regional. We’re excited that the period where we couldn’t go to the postseason is now over, so now we can move forward. We’re looking forward to the opportunity to get into the WAC Tournament then getting into a regional,” Stankiewicz said.
The coaching staff at GCU is a big reason for the teams’ success despite only being Division I for five years. With heavy competition for recruits in the area, GCU has held their own and created a successful program with championship aspirations.
“They really go at it hard when it comes to scouting. Stankiewicz is one of the most revered [coaches] in the nation, from Team USA to Major League Baseball. He really does a good job going out there and getting what he wants,” Ryan Hutchison, regional scout for Collegiate Baseball Scouting Network, said.
“[The coaching staff] will work with the players night in and night out until they’re comfortable with what they needed to work on. They really take their players and maximize what they can become for the next level and beyond.”
Just like the university itself, GCU baseball is growing at an exponential rate. Once a school of only a few buildings, GCU has grown to a full-blown college campus complete with brand new facilities for almost every sport and academic program. With the success of not only baseball, but also basketball and men’s soccer, GCU is quickly becoming a force to be reckoned with in the Valley of the Sun.
“The fun thing is to watch the university grow. The university itself has grown into a really well respected academic university. All the sports programs here have had a lot of success. We’re fortunate that we have a staff and administration that’s really supportive of athletics on the campus. They’ve given us all the resources that we need to do well on the field and do well in the classrooms,” Stankiewicz said.
Stankiewicz has spent a fair amount of time in Arizona over the years. In 1998, he was a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks during their inaugural season and from 2007 to 2009 he served as an assistant coach with the Arizona State baseball team. During a stint with the Seattle Mariners organization as their minor league field coordinator in 2010 and 2011, GCU started to grow from a small private college to a legitimate athletics powerhouse. Now back in Arizona, Stankiewicz and his squad have turned heads outside of Phoenix and are ready to reach their full potential.
“When I first got the job and I told somebody that I was head coach at Grand Canyon University, if you didn’t live here in Arizona, they had no idea what Grand Canyon University was. They thought that it was actually in the Grand Canyon. It’s nice that when I say that we’re the coaching staff at GCU, people are starting to recognize us and where we’re at and [we’re] able to be more competitive in recruiting in the west coast,” Stankiewicz said.
Even with brand new facilities, GCU sticks to their classic baseball approach. In a day and age where analytics rule the game, the Lopes try to stay up to date with the curve while still maintaining an old-school approach.
“They look at a lot of different numbers that can help them. Not every college has access to analytics or super high end [programs] like Statcast that other DI facilities might have, but they use what they can. Being a younger program, they look at all the sources they have to get better for the next game,” Hutchison said.
For now, the Lopes focus is on the 2019 season. After a disappointing finish to their 2018 season, the Lopes will look to clinch their first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history and may have their best shot to do so this season. To prepare for another run at a WAC title, GCU will challenge themselves early with matchups against perennial tournament contenders in Stanford and TCU. Respectively, a duel with the Cardinal during the annual GCU Classic Tournament and a series against the Horned Frogs in non-conference play.
“We have a really tough schedule this year, but it’s good because we get to face those guys that are always contending to be in the tournament. It shows us that we can compete, and that we are just as good, and it builds our confidence. We can play with anyone in the country. We have to beat these teams if we want to achieve the goals that we set out to achieve,” Wyatt said.