As BYU-Utah baseball game looms, Cougars on a hot streak behind excellent coaching
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
PROVO — The way BYU junior infielder Brock Whitney sees it, first-year baseball coach Mike Littlewood possesses a "magic touch."
The Cougars (19-15) have won six of their last seven games, and earlier this season they earned wins over No. 2 Louisiana State and No. 21 UC Irvine.
BYU hosts in-state rival Utah (16-18) at Larry H. Miller Field Tuesday (6 p.m. MDT).
Whitney says the Cougars have responded to Littlewood's leadership.
"It's a privilege to play for coach Littlewood. I love the intensity that he brings to practice, and to the games, and the knowledge he has."
Through the first three innings of a recent home game against Portland, BYU's offense was punchless, and the Cougars trailed by four runs.
That's when Littlewood huddled his players together for a little pep talk that helped change the complexion of the contest.
"He pulled us aside and said, 'Hey, we're better than this. Re-gather yourselves, put together some good at-bats, and we'll be right back in this game,’ ” recalled Whitney. "We ended up taking the lead. We scored six runs that inning and we won the game. It was the perfect time for him to say something. He said the perfect thing, and it just clicked for us. He's got the magic touch."
Littlewood, who previously coached for 16 years at Dixie State College in St. George, took over for Vance Law last June.
"He was very successful down at Dixie," Whitney said. "He came in here and expected success from us. That's helped us in the transition to a new coach. When we don't play well, he lets us know, but he also builds us up, too. He says the right things at the right times, and it's striking a chord with us."
For his part, Littlewood likes the overall direction the program is going.
"I'm extremely happy with the way our guys are approaching every day, how hard they're working and how much effort they're putting in," said Littlewood.
From Day One, Littlewood has focused on getting the most out of his players.
"The thing we talk about with the team is, as thin as we are, we don't have a lot of depth on the pitching side or the position player side," Littlewood explained. "The one thing that we kept talking about and pounding into their heads was that nobody can underachieve. We just can't do that this year. If a couple of guys overachieve, especially the freshmen, we're going to be really good and very competitive. If we have a couple of guys underachieve, then we're going to struggle. I can say to a guy, no one has underachieved."
The Cougars have been led by starting pitcher Desmond Poulson, who boasts a record of 5-0 with an ERA of 2.14.
Littlewood said BYU has also benefited from several players overachieving, including freshman outfielder Jacob Hannemann, and freshman shortstop Hayden Nielsen.
Tuesday, the Cougars will be looking to avenge a 5-4 loss to Utah on March 26 at Spring Mobile Ballpark in Salt Lake City.
The Utes overcame a 4-1 deficit in the ninth inning to force an extra inning. In the 10th, Utah first baseman TJ Bennett hit a game-winning single.
"They snuck one out against us up at Spring Mobile, but we're excited to play them at home and hopefully get redemption," Whitney said.
Even though the Cougars and Utes no longer compete in the same conference, the rivalry is still a big deal.
"It's one of our favorite games of the year. We've all got friends on Utah's team," Whitney said. "It's bragging rights for the players and for recruiting. We like to play well against Utah and prove that we like to think that we're the best university. We're excited to play Utah next."
A former BYU player, Littlewood understands what the series with the Utes means to the schools and their fans.
"I played in that series when Utah was in our conference in the mid-1980s," Littlewood said. "I know how important that is, not just conference-wise, but in recruiting, bragging rights, and all that stuff. I would say it's probably a bigger game than your normal game. Maybe not as big as a conference game, but it means more, I think, to BYU guys and Utah guys. We approach that as a must-win. We lost to them there, lost a three-run lead in the ninth, which really hurt. It's a huge game for us. When you look at your schedule, you look where Utah is, as well as Utah Valley. It's a special rivalry."
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