Although it may not always feel like it, spring is right around the corner and that can mean only one thing — baseball season. For the Utah Valley baseball team, spring practices are already well underway as they prepare for their season opener in a little less than two weeks on Friday, Feb. 14 at Abilene Christian University. Until then, the team will be braving whatever weather in order to hit the ground running when it counts.
Hope Springs Anew
If one were to peer through the gates of UCCU Ballpark today, they would likely see bulldozers tearing up the outfield grass and molding the underlying soil into 8-foot tall mounds — not what one might expect from a field set to host Wolverine home games in a month. A new artificial playing surface will be installed prior to UVU’s home opener on Tuesday, March 10, but the current state of the ballpark seems to mirror a transitioning team with high aspirations.
Following a disappointing 2019 season in which they posted a 15-41 record, the Wolverines return some veteran players but lack experience at a few key positions — most importantly in their pitching rotation. Entering his 12th season as skipper, UVU head coach Eric Madsen remains optimistic that the team has the talent to compete at a high level.
“There is some maturity on the pitching staff,” said Madsen. “Leadership, I think that’s the biggest thing that helps. I think those returning position players … we need them to perform like they’re capable of.”
One of those returning players is senior right-fielder Alexander “Xander” Marco. Marco led last year’s team with six home runs and held a batting average of .297. Having experienced last year’s difficult season firsthand, Marco stressed how critical it is for this team to find the will to win.
“Coming out of last year it was difficult,” said Marco. “But this year I feel like we have a chip on our shoulder and we can really do something special if we are all bought in.”
However, with so many young players on this year’s squad, it’s not just the veterans who are driven to compete. Freshman catcher Trey Newman and freshman pitcher Devin Smith both spoke about how they can contribute to the 2020 campaign.
“I just want to give the team the best opportunity every time I’m on the mound to get the win,” said Smith.
“The key is to be locked into the game all the time,” Newman added. “I think if you’re doing that…and you’re always cheering somebody on, when your name and your number is called you’ll be ready to go.”
There is No “I” in Team
Just as much as the young players need to step up when called upon, if the Wolverines want to be successful this year they’ll need their veterans to stay focused on winning in the present. A number of upperclassmen are being looked at as potential prospects for this year’s Major League Baseball draft, including Marco, along with junior catcher Drew Sims and senior third baseman Kade Poulsen. For some, it might be easy to look ahead towards a future in professional baseball but the leaders of this team are set on succeeding this year before worrying about what the future holds.
“Since I’ve been here, we haven’t had the best record,” said Sims. “I’m hoping this season we’re going to change it … and have a winning season.”
For Marco, who began his college career at Cochise College in Arizona, playing for UVU has already fulfilled his dream of playing NCAA Division I baseball. Even as he hopes for an opportunity to play professional ball, Marco wants to win and wants to make the most of his final season as a Wolverine.
“This is my last year, so this is my last shot to be able to go do that,” said Marco. “But like I’ve mentioned before, I just want to win. To go to regionals, go to super-regionals, then go to [the College World Series in] Omaha, all of that stuff is on all of our minds.”
Many players admit that winning isn’t always easy, nor is it always fun. It can be a grind and is more often the result of repetition and commitment to the mundane aspects of the sport than it is the result of any flashy, individual effort. A losing season like last year can lead to frustration and selfishness, or it can motivate players to develop a stronger level of chemistry and work ethic as a team. To the outside observer, it is pretty clear this team falls into the latter category.
“If I need to go chart or fill up water, or whatever it is,” said Smith. “It’s about just being the best at whatever they ask me to do.”
Just Win, Baby
In the words of legendary Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers play-by-play broadcaster Vin Scully, “Losing feels worse than winning feels good.” It is a sentiment that would surely ring true with this team as they prepare to bounce back from last season. This team’s chemistry seems to be built around a universal desire to win.
“The ultimate success is just winning, and winning and winning,” said Madsen. “We need to go out and represent Utah Valley better. I think it’s exciting to know that that’s the challenge ahead and we are capable of doing that.”
Madsen went on to say that it is not just about winning against opponents on the field, but about winning internal and mental battles.
“We need to learn how to go out and play how we are capable of at every opponent,” said Madsen. “That helps us too, being able to learn how to compete with ourselves.”
All this talk of winning doesn’t sound cliché, nor does it feel rehearsed or scripted. From the top down this team is instilled not just with the desire to win, but the belief that they will win.
“My goal is to get to Omaha, [Nebraska] and play in the [College] World Series,” said Sims. “Getting to a regional … and going on from there, that’s a success for me.”
There is still a lot of baseball to be played before anyone can judge 2020 a success, but the Wolverines are in a good place to start the season. The struggles of the last few years should help guide the team when the going gets tough this year — which it inevitably will. Whatever path this season takes, the Wolverines don’t seem like the types to quit and will be worth following no matter what.
Photo courtesy of UVU Athletics