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College baseball: Grand Canyon appreciative of ability to play Arizona

With one year until postseason eligibility, GCU is taking on the big boys whenever possible

@FOXSPORTSAZ

In 2014, the Grand Canyon Antelopes made the two hour trip south to Tucson and came away with a win over the Arizona Wildcats.

It took three years, but they returned to Tucson on Wednesday, grateful for the opportunity the Pac-12 has finally given them.

“I think it does a lot,” GCU head coach Andy Stankiewicz said ahead of his team’s meeting with Arizona. “If you want to build a program for the long haul, we gotta play the best, and you look at the Pac-12, and certainly U of A is one of the best in the country, let alone the Pac-12.”

“Anytime we get a chance to compete with a program that’s been doing well for a long time, we get better in the long haul. It means a lot and we’re appreciative to U of A for doing the home-and-home versus them, and hopefully as we move forward we’ll be able to schedule more Pac-12.”

Whenever two in-state schools play each other, especially in this particular state, the players on both sides are quite familiar with each other, adding a little more to the game even if Arizona and GCU are in pretty different conferences.

“It’s kind of a chance for them to compete against each other once again,” Stankiewicz said of the significance of having a bunch of Arizona players on his team.

“For a lot of people I know it’s fun,” Arizona pitcher JC Cloney said about facing a new in-state school. “For fans it might give ‘em a little extra motivation to come out and be chippy. The Arizona guys might take it a little more. It’s good to get ‘em down here, get another good team in here for midweek, and get us prepared for USC.”

That 2014 game, a 3-1 victory for the Lopes, helped establish an identity for the school that was just dipping its toes into the Division-1 pool.

“It kind of got the guys excited about the first year of Division-1 and come play a team that’s been good historically since the beginning of time,” Stankiewicz recalled about that night. “I think it kind of boosted our confidence, like hey if we play good baseball, we have a chance to compete against some really good teams. So it went a long way, at least in that initial year, and that’s a matter of us building consistency in our play.”

“But we shouldn’t be a one-hit wonder. We want to build this thing really well for the long haul.”

After that game, the Pac-12 prevented all schools from scheduling GCU in any sport for two years, but the ban was lifted to start the 2016 academic year.

Arizona head coach Jay Johnson said that he reached out to GCU right away, but the wheels were already in motion before that decision had come down.

“I reached out to Jay right when he got the job,” Stankiewicz explained. “Initially that first year it didn’t go over, but I think in time, they’re going to see that we’re a good option just because we’re in-state; you don’t have to go out of state to schedule your Tuesdays or your Wednesdays, so that means a lot and from a budget standpoint as well.”

“So I said ‘Well, when your administration says it’s a go, we’re certainly going to be a go too’, so it’s good as we move forward just being able to play at U of A or a home-and-home every year.”

One school that’s not a go with GCU is Arizona State, who has said they won’t schedule GCU because "We are against using athletics as a mechanism to make profits. It's contrary to what we're trying to do." Sure, Grand Canyon is a for-profit university, but don’t pretend that you don’t make money off of athletics in Tempe.

Either way, GCU’s head baseball coach was an assistant at ASU from 2007-09, and his son Drew played there through 2014. But Andy admits that he hasn’t been able to have any say in the political struggle between the two Phoenix-area schools.

“There’s nothing I can really do about it,” the GCU coach said, despite being on a coaching staff that won three conference championships and made two College World Series appearances. “It’s the powers that be up top, and we certainly welcome that opportunity because again, it’s Tempe...it’s 15 minutes down the road, and we’re scheduling big teams and it would be nice to not go that far. Obviously ASU, like (Arizona), is great and has been forever, so hopefully that time will come.”

“At this point I can’t worry about it too much,” he continued. “It’s been pretty much a moot point, so I wish I could tell you more than that.”

One thing that has kind of defined GCU in its last year of postseason ineligibility is its tough scheduling in all sports, most notably men’s basketball. Dan Majerle has said he’s doing it to prepare his team for when it makes the NCAA Tournament, and Stankiewicz is doing the same with baseball.

“We know when we get to a Regional, we’re gonna be the four-seed,” Stankiewicz explained. “The WAC is always typically a four-seed if you look at it, and we’re gonna play the one, and the one’s gonna be U of A or ASU or Irvine or Fullerton or Oregon State in the West, so our thought has always been let’s play them, that way when we do hopefully get to that point where we’re in a regional, we’re just more prepared to compete.”

This year’s schedule for the Lopes started with Oklahoma State, a 2016 CWS participant. GCU was able to win two of those three games to open the season.

“That was big,” Stankiewicz said. “We got out of the blocks well, and we’ve kinda slowed down a little bit since, but it was just a reminder to our guys that if we play good baseball — throw strikes, play good defense, put the ball in play — we’re skilled enough to compete well. So that was just a reminder to our guys that sometimes you get caught up in the opponent, and when you see the big program we want our guys to not look at that and just focus on playing really disciplined, fundamentally sound baseball and we’ll be in the game til the end.”

With that possible Regional bid looming in 2018, the head man in Phoenix admits that the program still has a ways to go even with the postseason potential on the horizon.

“You look at what U of A and ASU has done in this state, they’ve been doing it well for a long time, and it takes time,” explained Stankiewicz of the state of his program. “It’s a roller coaster ride: you go two steps forward, you go two steps back; you go a step forward, you go a step back.”

“I’m happy, and our guys are playing summer ball in the big collegiate leagues, so I think that helps as well,” coach continued. “We’re getting ‘em out there, so we for sure still have a ways to go, but we feel like the ball’s moving in the right direction.”

The Antelopes are slated to get a major overhaul of their ballpark in the very near future as well, which will just keep the ball rolling in the right direction.

“Our field is great, it’s just the stadium is a little outdated,” said Stankiewicz. “I think when we get the new stadium built it’ll help in recruiting. We’ll have a nice clubhouse inside the stadium for the guys, and that’ll be a big shot. And I think the university just growing as a whole. With that many students, if we play well, we get students out to our ballgames, get ‘em excited about coming out to a game on a Friday night and fill that place up.”

Just like GCU has seen with the new basketball and soccer facilities, Stankiewicz is hoping that a renovated baseball stadium will change the overall culture of the program, and allow him to bring in better talent.

That combined with the fact that they’re showing they can compete with the big boys should put baseball fans on notice that the Antelopes are coming, and they’ll be here sooner rather than later.