BY DUDLEY E. DAWSON
One team that is absolutely thrilled to be in the NCAA and another who is hoping for a Regional Refresh will meet Friday at noon in Stillwater, Okla.
Second-seeded Arkansas (38-18) and third-seeded Grand Canyon University (41-19) will battle in the opener of the NCAA Baseball Tournament Stillwater Regional at O’Brate Stadium.
Top-seeded Oklahoma State (39-20), the No. 7 national seed, faces fourth-seeded Missouri State (30-27) at 6 p.m. in the other Friday contest of the double-elimination event.
The Lopes won the Western Athletic Conference regular season title with a 25-5 mark, but are ousted in the postseason tournament after a pair of losses to Abilene Christian 6-5 and 15-8.
GCU’s resume was bolstered by the fact it was 2-2 against No. 2 and No. 3 national seeds Stanford and Oregon State, 7-4 against Power 5 schools and 21-6 on the road.
“I’m excited for all of our guys in the program, for the families, fans, administration,” Grand Canyon head coach Andy Stankiewicz said to the assembled media at his team’s watch party. “I feel like they got it right. Sometimes, RPI becomes the end-all and I don’t think it is. It’s the overall body of work and our overall body of work put us in position to get an at-large.
“That’s always been the design of our scheduling, to show people that if you schedule well, you schedule tough programs and you compete well, you’ve got a chance to get an at-large.”
Stankiewicz knows his program faces a huge challenge.
“Obviously, it’s a very difficult regional,” Stankiewicz said. “You’re traveling to Oklahoma State and you’re playing Arkansas, but that’s OK. That’s the design of competition. Trying to be the best you can be, you’ve got to play the best in the country, so here we go. I’m excited about the opportunity.”
Arkansas head coach Dave Van Horn’s team has lost four games in a row and six of its last eight games after being ranked as high as second nationally.
That has prompted a look ahead and not behind per Van Horn, whose team advanced to the College World Series in 2015 via the Stillwater route.
“It’s been about being positive and talking about the future instead of the past,” Van Horn said. “And this team did that. You go over things. These guys are smart. They know if we’re trying to sandbag them a little bit.
“It’s that time of year that we shouldn’t have to motivate anybody. It’s more about just getting ready for the game, them getting healthy, feeling good when they throw the first pitch.”
Van Horn was asked if going on the road could be a unifying situation with am us against the world philosophy.
“I’m sure that’s one way to say it,” Van Horn said. “We feel like we haven’t played good down the stretch, as everyone knows. So we want to flip it. Sometimes maybe going on the road is a little less distraction.
“We’ll see how it turns out. Obviously we’d love to be playing here in front of our fans but we’re not and we know what’s in front of us so we’re just going to embrace it and go get after it.”
Van Horn respects Grand Canyon University, who has played at both Arkansas and Oklahoma State in the past few years, and is friends with Stankiewicz.
“Coach Stankiewicz is a good friend of mine and a great coach,” Van Horn said. “They are always good. A good defensive team, can pitch and this year they are swinging it. They are hitting over .300 as a team for the season and won their league again.”
Grand Canyon senior pitcher Brodie Cooper-Vassalakis and his teammates were nervous watching the selection show.
“The first half of the show, I was as nervous as can be waiting for it to happen,” Cooper-Vassalakis said. “It was almost better this way because nothing was guaranteed. It makes it a bit more special.
“We want to prove that we’re a way better team than what we showed last weekend. I think we have proven that throughout the season. We’re trying to build this program and part of that is being consistent and turning up to regionals every year and then, hopefully, keep going further than that.”
The WAC got two NCAA Tournament bids with New Mexico State getting an automatic big by winning the league tournament.
Arkansas is indeed looking for a refresh of the season.
“Maybe just change your mindset a little bit and take a step back and reevaluate the long season,” Van Horn said. “Maybe think about more the good things that we have done and just be real positive.
“But as far as game play, when you score, we need to go score earlier in the game. We have struggled getting off to a good start. We have been behind a lot, trying to fight back. We have done it a few times down the stretch, but more times than not, we didn’t catch them.
“So just more than anything, just change our minds. It is a new season and anything can happen.”
Van Hon may look shake up the team by shaking up the batting order.
“So what I’m going to do is try to put together a lineup that maybe can get us on a run,” Van Horn said. “Maybe one that can work for a while. So still tinkering, and hopefully something will work out.”
The game will be played in a stadium that was just opened a year ago. It has approximately 3,500 permanent seats, 11 suites and 400 premium seats in dedicated club and suite areas. Seating can be expanded to 8,000 as needed.
“I haven’t seen the facility since it has been completed, but it looks beautiful,” Van Horn said. “I’m excited to see that and play there. I am glad we are in a regional. When you look at some of teams that aren’t there, you know how hard it is to get there.”