PROVO — For the BYU baseball program, earning its first NCAA regional appearance in 15 years stands as a significant milestone.
Of course, the Cougars are looking to build on that performance next season.
When coach Mike Littlewood was hired as BYU’s coach five years ago, athletic director Tom Holmoe told him he wanted the program to be “nationally relevant” — and the Cougars took a big step in that direction this season.
“I didn’t know how much work that was going to take,” Littlewood said.
BYU posted a 38-21 record, tied for the West Coast Conference regular-season championship and claimed the league tournament title by winning four straight elimination games. The Cougars' impressive season came to an end when they lost last Saturday at Stanford in the NCAA regional.
“We want to develop guys and create a culture where guys want to compete and win,” Littlewood said. “I feel like we’ve laid the groundwork for that moving forward.”
As the Cougars began the season, the goal, as always, was to reach a regional.
“Overall, we met our goal. The first of the year, making a regional was our long-term goal. It’s a lofty goal,” Littlewood said. “We only got one team in from the West Coast Conference, which means you have to win the conference tournament. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly gratifying to see the guys get rewarded for all of their hard work the last eight months.”
When asked about the highlight of the season, Littlewood said, “There were highlights all the way through.”
BYU got off to a rocky start before putting together a strong season-half of the campaign.
“If you look at the big picture, we were 10-11 at one point. A highlight for me was turning it around,” Littlewood said. “After the Santa Barbara series, we realized our potential. That was the turning point in our season where we ran off a bunch of wins and believed in ourselves.
"Obviously winning four games in 40 hours at the conference tournament was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever seen. It takes an incredible mentality and big performances by each guy. Every single guy on that team stepped up those two days.”
The Cougars will be losing five seniors — pitchers Keaton Cenatiempo, Brady Corless and Mason Marshall as well as infielder Tanner Chauncey and catcher Bronson Larsen — who helped establish a strong foundation for the program.
“They’ve helped us create a culture and create the standard of excellence that we require,” Littlewood said. “Not only that, they are teaching the younger guys that. We’re going to miss those guys. … They’re going to be tough to replace. Bronson and Tanner developed into incredible hitters. Somebody’s going to have to step up from this year’s team — maybe Keaton Kringlen or Kyle Dean — in the middle of the order next year.
"We’re losing key guys on the pitching and hitting side," Littlewood continued. "We’re losing a starter and relievers. Not just talent-wise but mentality-wise, it’s going to be tough to replace those guys. You have to reload and keep going.”
As part of the reloading process, Littlewood signed six players last November.
Lone Peak pitcher Seth Corry headlines the incoming recruits, though Littlewood acknowledges that he could be a top pick in the upcoming baseball draft.
“Seth would be a tremendous two-way player for us,” Littlewood said. “He could start in the outfield for us and start the third game as a starting pitcher. He could be the best player in the country as he grows and develops."
Other signees include Ryan Brady, Koby Kelton, Mitch McIntyre, Benjamin Rigby and Mason Abrath.
Key returning players include pitchers Hayden Rogers and Maverik Buffo as well as Kringlen, Dean, Brock Hale, WCC Defensive Player of the Year Daniel Schneemann, Colton Shaver, Brennon Anderson and Nate Favero — though Hale is expected to be taken in the upcoming draft, Littlewood said.
Now that the 15-year NCAA Tournament drought has ended, Littlewood is eager to build on that success.
“A regional is kind of the benchmark,” he said. “If you want to have a good program year in and year out, you’ve got to be at least in the conversation for a regional if you don’t win your league outright. … Putting quality players and a quality product on the field that is going to be regional-worthy is what our goal is every single year.”