PROVO — When the BYU baseball program found out it had won its first outright regular season conference championship in 30 years and earned the No. 1 seed in the upcoming West Coast Conference Tournament for the first time, the celebration was somewhat subdued.
The Cougars finished the regular season with a victory over Santa Clara last Saturday. That night, BYU was flying back home when Loyola Marymount defeated Gonzaga, which meant that the Cougars had clinched the outright title.
“There was no dog pile when we won the (outright) championship. Of course, we found out while we were on an airplane — that would have been awkward,” joked coach Mike Littlewood, who was sitting near the front of the plane that night. “I heard a little roar from the back of the plane. That was basically it. This team has good perspective and realizes there’s more work to be done in the tournament.”
This week, the top-seeded Cougars (36-15, 19-8), who are ranked No. 24 by Baseball America, travel to Stockton, California for the WCC Tournament and will face No. 4 seed LMU Thursday.
It's been quite a turnaround for BYU, which posted a 22-28 record overall and 11-16 in WCC play and failed to qualify for the conference tournament last year. The Cougars were picked to finish sixth in the WCC preseason poll by the league’s coaches.
“To get the championship outright, it’s pretty special, especially after the struggles we went through. I feel like we were just as talented last year and I don’t feel like we’ve changed what we’ve done as a staff,” Littlewood said. “But everybody’s on the same page this year. After doing this (coaching) for 25-30 years, it tells me how important culture is, how important buy-in is — all those things that coaches say that sometimes you think they’re just words. They mean something to us now. Our guys deserve this. They’ve worked hard and they’ve really earned it.”
Still, BYU has its sights on more than a conference championship. It is looking to return to the NCAA Regional for the second time in three years. The winner of the WCC Tournament receives the league’s automatic bid to the NCAAs.
As of Monday, the Cougars had an RPI of 41 and they’ve recorded seven victories against Power Five opponents, the most in program history, having beaten Northwestern (twice), Washington (twice), Ohio State, Oregon and Utah.
Has BYU done enough to get into the tournament as an at-large team?
“I feel like we should be, yeah … I look at our RPI now and our body of work and I really feel like we’re a regional-type team," Littlewood said. "But you never know. I feel like we go to the championship game, we’re probably a lock for that. But the no Sunday play comes into play. It’s not like RPI, where some algorithm decides where you are. It’s people and if someone says, ‘We don’t want to move our pitching up to Thursday, Friday and Saturday,’ then we’ll get bumped. That’s just the facts of life. I’d rather win it alone but I think our body of work is proof enough.”
Certainly, the Cougars don’t want to leave anything to chance.
“Anytime you go into the conference tournament, I would never want to leave it up to other people to decide whether we get in or not,” said senior outfielder Brock Hale. “We fully expect to win the tournament. Our approach is to go to the tournament and win it.”
Would BYU need to win the conference tournament to validate its regular season crown?
“The conference tournament is definitely a lot bigger than the regular season title. The conference tournament says a lot more about a team because that’s when it matters,” said sophomore infielder Jackson Cluff. “That’s when you’ve got to play your best and that’s winning when it’s clutch. The tournament carries a lot more weight.”
Littlewood credits the leadership of Hale, Cluff, pitcher Jordan Wood, catcher Noah Hill, first baseman Brian Hsu and outfielder Keaton Kringlen for his team’s strong performance this season.
“All those guys have set the bar high and our younger guys have followed,” he said. “That’s been the key to our success.”
The 2019 senior class is the first class in program history to win conference titles, regular season or tournament, in three different years after taking the regular season titles in 2016, 2017 and 2019 along with the tournament title in 2017. BYU previously won three in five-year stretches several times in the 1980s.
Hale said it’s been gratifying this season not only winning an outright WCC championship, but also building a tradition for BYU baseball.25 comments on this story
“The biggest thing as a senior, you want to create a positive culture, a culture of winning, which we’ve been able to do since I’ve been here. You want to set the example for the other guys and the guys who are going to be here after I’m gone,” Hale said. “I hope we can go as far as we can go, go to the regional and really, going to the regional sets a standard for BYU baseball. That’s something we should expect to do, not something we’re just happy to do. We want to make it the expectation that BYU baseball is going to make the NCAA regional and compete with any team in the nation. That would be something cool to leave behind.”