The Seattle U Redhawks beat the Sac State Hornets 5-4 in the first game of the Western Athletic Conference baseball tournament last night. It was about as dramatic a finish as you'll ever see. Down three in bottom of the ninth, the top-seeded Redhawks were in trouble, but like they have all season, and really since the inception of the program in 2010, they fought their way back.
Jeffery Morgan, Lucas Denney, and Max Modeste hit back-to-back-to-back singles to load the bases for Curtis Perrin. The sophomore utility player drove in two runs to pull Seattle U within one, then Griffin Andreychuk tied it at four with a sacrifice fly.
With Perrin on third, one out, sophomore Dalton Hurd stepped up to the plate, smacked a walk-off single into the gap and sealed the comeback. Now the regular season conference champion Redhawks will face Utah Valley for the right to advance to the WAC championship series.
Hard to believe this team didn't exist seven years ago.
Seattle U disbanded their baseball program in 1986, and didn't reinstate it until 2010. As head coach Donny Harrel put it, "We didn't have a baseball on campus, and here we are holding up a big trophy."
It's been a steady rise for the Redhawks and their head coach (pictured left) — the man who's been at the helm since day one. When I talked to Harrel, he spoke about the process of building a team from scratch: start with junior college transfers in the early years — experienced guys who know the grind — and build up to high school recruits.
Second baseman Sheldon Stober was one of those JC transfers. The senior from Kent, Washington came to SU from Bellevue College last season, and said he was extremely happy to play his last years of college ball close to home. You better believe Seattle U is glad to have him. He ranked in the top ten in the WAC in nearly every offensive stat category in 2016, and says this season has been the best of his college career.
It's easy to look at a stat sheet and see Stober's team-high batting average (.357) and slugging percentage (.529) and assume he's the go-to guy both on and off the field. But it's not as straight forward as all that. "I'm not a big talker," Stober said, "I'd rather go out there and kind of lead by example."
Sheldon Stober, courtesy of Seattle U Athletics
That's the kind of kid coach Harrel is talking about — the kind of kid you need to build a program from the ground up. The new kids need somebody to show them how to take care of business night-in and night-out, and Stober has been one of the guys to teach them.
Zach Wolf learned those lessons pretty quickly. The 5-foot-7 freshman wasn't highly recruited out of high school, and even after talking to assistant coach Elliot Cribby, he wasn't sure what to expect when he came to Seattle U.
But his coaches knew they had something special in the right-handed reliever. He saw his first action in the third game of the season and earned the first of his WAC-best 12 saves the next day — in a 4-1 win at St. Mary's (CA).
According to Wolf, things started to really click for him in the middle of the WAC season. And now? "I just want the ball in my hand," Wolf said. "In pretty much every situation."
One common situation in which Wolf finds himself is preserving a win for WAC Pitcher of the Year Nick Meservey. The lefty from Scottsdale, Arizona was automatic this season, leading the conference in ERA (1.89) and opposing batting average (.198) by wide margins. Pretty impressive for a sophomore. Pretty impressive for anyone.
Nick Meservey, Courtesy of Seattle U Athletics
Meservey is one of more than 20 underclassmen on the 30-man roster. That's a roster built for championships — plural.
"We felt good last year at this tournament, about the future," coach Harrel said. "I think that's when you're in a good position — when your depth allows you to keep going."
I asked Meservey what it's like to know he's got two more seasons with essentially the same group of core players, players he said were as close as brothers. "It's cool being a part of such a young team," he said. "A lot of guys will keep getting better as they get older."
Scary thought for the rest of the WAC. Meservey, Wolf, and Stober were all named First Team All-WAC this season, along with sophomore first baseman Sean Sutton and junior third baseman Brock Carpenter. Only Utah Valley had even half as many first-teamers.
Seattle U's First Team All-WAC players (from left to right) Brock Carpenter, Sheldon Stober, Zach Wolf, Sean Sutton, and Nick Meservey, Courtesy of Seattle U Athletics
So it really is hard to guess how high the ceiling is for this ball club, especially considering they've elevated their play pretty much every season since the youngsters came to campus. The Redhawks have broken the program record for wins in a season in each of the past three years, with 26 in 2014, 31 in 2015, and 36 so far this season.
The three All-WAC first-teamers agreed coach Harrel was the biggest reason for their success. Coach Harrel in turn deflected praise onto his assistants, saying assistant coaches are often the most under-appreciated members of any college baseball team. He praised everyone that helped build the program into what it is today.
"When we won that thing [the regular season WAC championship], it was a win for all six years of previous clubs that built this thing up, and a win for our donors and alums," Harrel said. "It was truly an organizational crown."
By the end of the weekend we'll see if the Redhawks can add another crown to their growing trophy case. Either way, this is only just the beginning.
WAC regular season champions Seattle U, courtesy of SU Athletics