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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
BYU players celebrate a three-run triple from Jackson Cluff, giving BYU a 4-1 lead over UVU in the bottom of the eighth inning, at Miller Park in Provo on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

PROVO — When the BYU baseball team (22-8) appeared in the Collegiate Baseball Division 1 rankings back on April 1, it was a notable thing considering the improvements the Cougars have made this season. At the same time it was an acheivement that called for perspective, with BYU coach Mike Littlewood knowing a lot of baseball was yet to be played with better and much more meaningful goals still very much in play.

After all, it's baseball, a sport that plays more games and perhaps experiences as many ups and downs as any other collegiate sport. As if to punctuate this fact, Littlewood's team suffered three straight losses right after appearing in the rankings, including two tough losses to Utah and then to West Coast Conference rival San Diego.

"You take the rankings with a grain of salt. Sure, it's a nice honor, but I don't put a lot of stock in rankings," Littlewood said. "Rankings don't affect the season, by-and-large."

Recognizing what's important, while not getting too up or too down throughout the course of the year, is what often defines top baseball teams and it's something BYU has done far better this year compared to last, according to Littlewood.

" The new guys have done great, but it's really the senior leadership from guys like Brock Hale, Brian Hsu, Noah Hill and Jordan Wood — that's been the biggest thing that's sustained us to this point of the season. Those guys are leading from the top down and the new guys are buying into what they say and their approach to things. "
BYU head coach Mike Littlewood

Last season saw the Cougars take a step back after several successful seasons of marked improvement within the program and subsequent excitement from fans. A 22-28 final record on the 2018 season called for some changes to be made, with Littlewood actively working hard to bring about those changes, along with several returning players.

"Last year we had a lot of guys who weren't on the same page and who lost sight of what our goals were," Littlewood said. "I think the day-to-day process was something too many guys didn't take serious last year."

The solution to last year's problem entailed cutting bait to several players while bringing in some new faces that could work better to achieve the team goals.

"I don't think last year was a talent issue whatsoever, and I think any coach at this level would tell you that the culture, and how guys get along, is a huge thing and even more important than the talent on the field in a lot of ways," Littlewood said. "So we let 8-10 guys go from last year. I don't keep track of the exact number, and some of those wanted to go while some didn't. But we had to make those changes."

Littlewood's overhaul brought in 20 new faces to combine with some returning senior leadership whose direction he believes has brought about a lot of the positive change.

"The new guys have done great, but it's really the senior leadership from guys like Brock Hale, Brian Hsu, Noah Hill and Jordan Wood — that's been the biggest thing that's sustained us to this point of the season," Littlewood said. "Those guys are leading from the top down and the new guys are buying into what they say and their approach to things."

Standout newcomers are Jackson Cluff, Easton Walker and Danny Gelalich, all of whom returned home from mission service for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to provide big impacts, among others.

It's all meshed into generally positive outcomes, with returning players taking to heart to lead by example and to be more vocal with their direction.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
BYU's Brock Hale scores on a three-run triple from Jackson Cluff, giving BYU a 4-1 lead over UVU in the bottom of the eighth inning, at Miller Park in Provo on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

"We've definitely had talks and continue to have talks with those leaders and with everyone," Littlewood said. "I told those seniors before the year that it's their team and the success of this team will largely be up to them and their approach. They've all responded great to that and they've really taken charge of the program, which is what you love to have."

What Littlewood and his players ultimately want to have this season is a WCC championship, with that goal very much attainable given they stand just one back of conference leader Loyola Marymount.

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"We were picked to finish low by coaches prior to the season, so we like that we've beaten those expectations so far," Littlewood said. "But there's a lot of teams that can win this thing and the standings are very close currently. So we need to keep focus like we have and hopefully we can make it to our ultimate goal as a result."

The Cougars next take on Utah before returning to WCC play in hosting Pepperdine in a three-game series.

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Cougars on the air

Game: BYU vs. Utah

Where: Miller Park

When: Tuesday, April 9, 6 p.m. MDT.

Where to watch: BYUtv