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Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo
Keaton Kringlen does a high-five with teammate Brock Hale in 2016 after hitting a pair of homers as BYU hosted Arizona.

PROVO — In 2017, the BYU baseball team won the West Coast Conference tournament and advanced to the NCAA regionals for the first time in 15 years.

In 2018, the Cougars sputtered to a disappointing 22-28 campaign.

As BYU opens the 2019 season this weekend against Northwestern in Mesa, Arizona, coach Mike Littlewood is optimistic his team can challenge for the WCC title.

“With the team we have, we should battle for the league championship,” he said. “If we don’t, we’ve underachieved or underperformed somehow, whether it’s coaching or the players, whatever. We have the team that can do it, there’s no doubt about that.”

“The expectation is to get to the conference tournament, win the conference tournament and make it to the regional, like we did in 2017, and bounce back from last year,” said outfielder Brock Hale, who hit a team-high .342 in 2018. “I like the chemistry that we have as a team right now. We have a lot of good players, a lot of guys that are scrappers. I’m excited about the season. I think we’ll do big things this year.”

Still, the Cougars were picked to finish sixth in a couple of preseason polls, but Littlewood is unfazed.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all. I probably anticipated that,” he said, noting that most observers aren’t aware of players rejoining the team after missions and incoming transfers.

BYU returns a bevy of veterans to go along with a handful of key newcomers.

“The regional is our goal. We don’t talk about it a whole lot,” Littlewood said. “The catch phrase in athletics now is 'trust the process.' And we do that. But I get paid to win games, not to trust the process. That’s what we do but it’s all about 'Ws' right now.”

Here’s a position-by-position look at the 2019 Cougars:

CATCHERS: Noah Hill, who hit .255 last season, will start at catcher, Littlewood said, adding that he’s impressed with freshman Colton Easton from Lone Peak High. Easton and Abraham Valdez will battle for the backup spot.

“When we get to league, Noah will do most of the catching,” Littlewood said.

INFIELDERS: Brian Hsu and Keaton Kringlen are expected to share time at first base. Hsu batted .287 and Kringlen .305 a year ago. Jackson Cluff, who has recently returned from a mission, will man second base after hitting .268 in a backup role two years ago. Shortstop Carson Matthews is a freshman that was an All-CIF selection in California.

“We really like Carson. He’s a leader," Littlewood said. "He’s ultra-Type A guy. Never smiles."

Casey Jacobsen, who hit .225 in a reserve role last year, will play third. He’ll be backed up by transfer DJ McNew.

OUTFIELDERS: Leadoff hitter Danny Gelalich, who’s back from a mission, will play center field, while Mitch McIntyre, who hit .254 last season, will patrol left.

Hale, a senior, returns to right field. Hale started all 50 games in 2018 and led the team with a .342 average, 67 hits, 40 runs, 31 RBI, 15 doubles and seven stolen bases in addition to eight home runs and 22 walks. The Mesa, Arizona, native was All-WCC first team last season and is a preseason All-WCC selection.

D1Baseball.com named Hale as its preseason WCC Player of the Year and All-WCC. Perfect Game listed Hale as the "best pure hitter" in the conference.

Littlewood said that Hale has become more of a vocal leader this season.

STARTERS: During the offseason, Littlewood hired a new pitching coach, Michael Bradshaw, who previously worked at the University of Arizona.

Senior right-hander Jordan Wood is BYU’s is the staff ace. He posted a 2.66 ERA, had 63 strikeouts in 14 starts last season and was named to the All-WCC first team.

The Cougars’ other starters are Justin Sterner, who appeared in eight games last year, and Drew Zimmerman, a 2018 Freshman All-American who posted five saves, 40 strikeouts and a 2.40 ERA in 45 innings.

Blake Inouye and Jarod Lessar could also get some starts.

“Our pitching staff is good. The new guys have found their roles,” Wood said. “We’ll throw a lot of strikes. We may not have overpowering guys like in years past but this year everybody knows their roles and they stick to what they’re good at.”

RELIEVERS: Redshirt freshman Ryan Brady is due to return to the team in March after undergoing Tommy John surgery during the offseason. His return will add depth to the pitching staff.

“Hopefully Ryan Brady can be a bridge guy in the sixth inning to get us to a closer,” Littlewood said.

The rest of the bullpen will be staffed by seniors Inouye, Riley Gates and Bo Burrup as well as Lessar, a junior transfer. Other relievers include Easton Walker, Reid McLaughlin and Ben Weese.

“Our staff is probably deeper than it’s been,” Littlewood said. “We have a bunch of strike throwers and competitors. That speaks a lot to what coach Bradshaw has done with those guys’ mentality."

2019 BYU baseball schedule

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  • FEBRUARY: 15-16 — vs. Northwestern (Mesa, Arizona); 18 — vs. California (Tempe, Arizona); 21 — at Texas A&M Corpus-Christi (Corpus Christi, Texas); 22 — vs. Ohio State (Corpus Christi, Texas); 23 — vs. Oral Roberts (Corpus Christi, Texas); 28 — at Lamar (Beaumont, Texas).
  • MARCH: 1-2 — at Lamar (Beaumont, Texas); 5 — UTAH VALLEY; 7-9 — MILWAUKEE; 14-16 — at Gonzaga; 19 — at Utah Valley; 21-23 — PORTLAND; 26 — OREGON; 28-30 — SAINT MARY’S.
  • APRIL: 2 — at Utah; 4-6 — at San Diego; 9 — UTAH; 11-13 — PEPPERDINE; 18-20 — at Washington; 25-27 — at Pacific; 29 — at California.
  • MAY: 2-4 — at Loyola Marymount; 6 — vs. San Diego State (Lake Elsinore, California); 9-11 — SAN FRANCISCO; 14 — at Utah; 16-18 — at Santa Clara.