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BYU baseball the best team you haven't heard about

Chances are you missed the memo. The BYU baseball team is quietly winning games at a record pace with relatively little notice. That’s because fans and media are focused on March Madness and all things football, so let’s do something about that.

The Cougars, led by a former NCAA basketball referee of all things, are off to the best start in school history — 20 wins, 3 losses heading into Thursday night's game against Portland. No one saw that coming. The Cougars were picked to finish fifth in their conference.

Maybe the facial hair will get them noticed, along with the winning. The Cougars opened the season with a four-game series against Saint Louis University, which was picked to win the Atlantic 10 Conference. The Cougars swept them, and in the process they decided to embark on a little silliness — they would grow mustaches and keep them until they lost a series. About a dozen of the players and two of the assistant coaches sport ‘staches and there’s no sign they will have to shave them any time soon.

They traveled to Alabama to meet Samford, picked to win the Southern Conference. The Cougars won three out of four. They went to Kansas and swept them, three-zip, including two come-from-behind wins. They beat Utah 6-0 in their only meeting.

The Cougars and their facial hair face some big tests. On Monday, Arizona will play BYU in Provo. They also will face San Diego, a team BYU has beaten only once in 16 tries over the years.

The Cougars — hashtag mustachemafia — are slowly gaining recognition. They are ranked No. 24 in two national polls — their first ranking since 1994.

“Nobody expects to be 20-3,” says coach Mike Littlewood, who came to the Cougars four years ago after coaching Dixie State. “This takes me back to my Dixie days when there was very little parity at the JC level and you could go on a run like that. But with the parity in (Div. I) college baseball, you don’t expect it.”

Littlewood, a former all-conference third baseman for BYU, coached at Alta High before landing at Dixie in 1996. He took a pay cut to take the job, but found a way to supplement his income: He took a night job officiating college basketball games. It turns out he’s as good at officiating basketball games as he is coaching baseball teams. Littlewood officiated throughout his 16-year stay at Dixie, including three times in the NCAA Sweet 16 and twice in the Elite Eight.

But his day job was coaching Dixie, first at the JC level and then at the Division II level. He compiled a won-loss record of 563-238 and made four appearances in the JC World Series, winning the national championship in 2004 and finishing second in 2001.

When he came to BYU, he quit officiating, but he still evaluates referees for the Pac-12 by grading video. Meanwhile, he’s leading the Cougars to what could be the best baseball season in school history, and he’s doing it with only two seniors on the team.

Designated hitter Colton Shaver, a sophomore from Jordan High and a freshman All-American in 2015, sports a .453 batting average and six homers. Pitcher Mike Rucker, a transfer from Gonzaga, is unbeaten in five starts and has a 2.29 ERA.

Nate Favero, a sophomore from Virginia who plays third and first base (but not at the same time), is hitting .385. He has paid dividends in other ways, as well. His brother and cousin have signed to play for the Cougars.

Brennon Anderson, a sophomore second baseman and returned missionary from Jordan High who was Littlewood’s first signee, is batting .378. The Cougars have also gotten good play from Tanner Chauncey, a Las Vegas prep teammate of Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper who was drafted out of high school; Brennon Lund, the team’s speedy base stealer and centerfielder; Hayden Nielsen, the team’s defensive leader at shortstop; Mason Marshall, a junior from Bingham who is No. 2 in career saves at BYU; and catcher Bronson Larsen, who has four homers.

Word is getting out about the Cougars. ESPNU is going to televise BYU’s final regular-season game on May 21. With their youth, the Cougars could make a run in the next few years, although a number of their players are expected to be drafted.

“The record and the ranking aren’t getting to our guys,” says Littlewood. “We’re approaching the whole thing very even keel. Not too high, not too low. It’s pitch to pitch, out to out, inning to inning.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com