Editor’s note: Fifteenth in a series of articles examining how each BYU program will stack up against its new conference foes. Today’s program: baseball.

The BYU baseball program is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, on campus depending on how you count such things in the late 19th century. But it wasn’t until 1958 that the team was thrust into the spotlight.

That year, the Cougars finally broke through not only conference play but also district as well to qualify for their first-ever College World Series. But when it was discovered the tourney was to be played on Sunday, the team made the heart-wrenching but noble decision to withdraw.

The same situation happened yet again in 1961, and again the team stayed home. Finally, in 1968 and 1971, BYU was able to play with in the College World Series with seven of the other top teams in the nation.

The championships were a precursor to a run of excellence for about a decade starting in 1979 when conference titles and NCAA appearances were commonplace. The team hit a zenith in 1983, reaching a No. 1 national ranking. The Cougars lost early in the NCAA tournament to Arizona State and some guy named Barry Bonds, but finished ranked No. 6 in the country.

Top BYU alumni include Jack Morris, the Cougars’ only National Baseball Hall of Fame honoree who played 18 years in the majors and was a four-time World Series winner, a five-time All-Star and a World Series MVP. MLB All-Star Wally Joyner played 16 seasons as did Rick Aguilera, a two-time World Series champion. Other longtime big leaguers include Vance Law (11 seasons), Jeremy Guthrie (13 seasons) and Dane Iorg (10 seasons) who was also a two-time World Series champ.

The Cougars were adequate during their time in the Mountain West Conference but went without a conference title from 2003 until 2016 when BYU alum and head coach Mike Littlewood guided the Cougars to a West Coast Conference championship. BYU would win the WCC again in 2017 and 2019.

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Last year, the first full season for head coach Trent Pratt, BYU closed out its time in the WCC with a seventh-place finish and an overall record of 24-28. While the hitting was good, losing four pitchers to the pros the summer before the season was tough to overcome — the Cougars ranked 254th out of 295 teams nationally with a 7.47 ERA just one season after ranking fifth in the country with a 3.76 ERA.

Infielder Austin Deming was a bright spot as he was named an All-American (BYU’s first since 2016) and was drafted in the 10th round of the MLB draft by the Atlanta Braves.

Top position players heading into 2024 include junior Cooper Vest, who was second on the team last year with a .359 average including 16 doubles, three triples and eight home runs. All-WCC infielder Brock Watkins and catcher Collin Reuter will also be big contributors after missing large chunks of playing time last season due to injury. Watkins led the team in 2022 in runs, hits and homers while Reuter was solid as a freshman behind and at the plate.

On the mound, the Cougars’ ERA leader Boston Mabeus (3.25 ERA) and 2023 starters Bryce Robison (6.64 ERA) and Mason Olson (5.53 ERA) all return. Brothers Ben and Brett Hansen will also step in — Ben had 44 strikeouts in 10 starts and 16 games last year while Brett, a high school All-American, will get his first experience as a Cougar this spring after transferring from TCU and, before that, traditional powerhouse Vanderbilt.

Big 12 baseball

Every program in the conference sponsors baseball except Iowa State. Last year, the conference sent six schools to the NCAA postseason, third-most of any conference behind the SEC and ACC. Texas advanced to the Super Regional while TCU made its sixth College World Series appearance and reached the semifinals. The Big 12 has had at least one team reach the College World Series in each of the last nine years.

Texas has won six national championships in program history with the last one in 2005. The Longhorns have 38 College World Series appearances, the most of any team in the nation. Oklahoma and Oklahoma State have also won national titles.

West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Texas tied for the 2023 Big 12 regular season title, but TCU won the conference tournament as the No. 4 seed. In the last 11 seasons since 2012, seven different Big 12 programs have finished the regular season at the top of the standings, highlighting the strength and depth of the conference.

As members of the American Athletic Conference the last decade, Houston won three regular season conference championships, UCF one and Cincinnati zero.

How will BYU fare?

A lot happens year to year with collegiate baseball rosters; they’re likely the most fluid in all of college sports. The Cougars will certainly benefit from the return of their numerous injured players and the incoming class, including right-handed pitcher Max Stanley, who was picked in this year’s MLB draft but has opted to play his freshman year in Provo.

But considering their record in the WCC last spring in an NCAA tournament one-bid conference, plus the strength of the Big 12 as one of the top conferences top to bottom, the odds are stacked for BYU in Year 1. Qualifying for the Big 12 tourney would be a great achievement, but more likely the Cougars will hope to pick up a few big wins here and there and gain experience for future seasons.

Big 12 teams at a glance

Here’s a look at the Cougars’ conference competition listed in my predicted order of finish:

 TCU

  • Overview: After reaching the semifinals of the College World Series and top-10 nationally last year, TCU had seven players taken in the MLB draft. A problem? Not totally. The Frogs return four Freshmen All-Americans, including two of their top three hitters and their top hurler. With a combination of youth and experience, the sky is the limit for TCU.
  • Last season finish: 7th nationally, 4th in Big 12 at 13-11, 44-24 overall.
  • Top players: Karson Bowen (So., C, Freshman All-American), Anthony Silva (So., SS, Freshman All-American, All-Region), Kole Klecker (So., P, Freshman All-American), Ben Abeldt (So., P, Freshman All-American).
  • Conference titles: 14 (1967, ’72, ’94, ’06-’12, ’15, ’17, ’21-’22).
  • NCAA tourneys: 19 (1956, ’94, ’04-’12, ’14-’17, ’19-’23).
  • BYU and TCU history: The Horned Frogs have a 30-6 advantage over BYU, with most coming when the two programs were last conference foes in the MWC.

Oklahoma State

  • Overview: Oklahoma State brings back four of its top five hitters from 2023 after sharing the regular season conference title and advancing the Big 12 tournament championship game. They Cowboys will vie for another title in 2024.
  • Last season finish: 1st in Big 12 at 15-9, 41-20 overall.
  • Top players: Nolan Schubart (So., 1B/OF, All-American), Carson Benge (So., OF/P, All Big-12 First Team), Tyler Wulfert (Big 12 Newcomer of the Year).
  • Conference titles: 32 (1947-’49, ’54-’55, ’59-’61, ’66-’69, ’78, ’81-’96, ’14, ’23).
  • NCAA tourneys: 48 (1948-’49, ’54-’55, ’59-’61, ‘66-’69, ’78, ’81-’99, ’01, ’04, ’06-’09, ’11, ’13-’23).
  • BYU and Oklahoma State history: OSU is the most recently Big 12 team BYU has played; the two teams competed in a three-game series in 2022. The Cougars defeated the sixth-ranked Cowboys in game one before OSU took the next two. The Cowboys own a 14-5 lead in the series overall.

Texas

  • Overview: After finishing among the nation’s top-12 teams for the third year in a row, Texas lost six players to the draft. But the Longhorns do return All-American Lebarron Johnson Jr. and always have talent — they may lose have a step, but it’d be unwise to assume Texas will be less than competitive.  
  • Last season finish: 12th nationally, 1st in Big 12 at 15-9, 42-22 overall.
  • Top players: Lebarron Johnson Jr. (Jr., P, All-America Second Team), Porter Brown (Sr., OF, All-Region).
  • Conference titles: 74 (1915-’22, ’24-’30, ’32, ’35-’36, ’38-’41, ‘43-’54, ’57-’58, ’60-’63, ’65-’76, ’79-’88, ’91-’92, ’96, ’02, ’04, ’06-’07, ’09-’11, ’18, ’21, ’23).
  • NCAA tourneys: 60 (1947, ’49-’50, ’52-’54, ’57-’58, ’60-’62, ’66-’76, ’79-’96, ’99-’11, ’14-’15, ’17-’18, ’21-’23).
  • BYU and Texas history: Texas leads the series, 6-1. Most recently, BYU played a four-game series in Austin 2021, losing the first three before winning the final game. Most famously, the Cougars lost to the Longhorns in the 1968 College World Series.

Texas Tech

  • Overview: The Red Raiders slipped a bit last season in conference play, but the roster trended young. With All-American Gavin Kash, the Big 12 leader in home runs, RBI and total bases leading the way, TTU should return to the upper crust of Big 12 teams.
  • Last season finish: 6th in Big 12 at 12-12, 41-23 overall.
  • Top players: Gavin Kash (Jr., INF, All-American), Kevin Bazzell (So., INF, Freshman All-American).
  • Conference titles: 5 (1995, ’97, ’16-’17, ’19).
  • NCAA tourneys: 17 (1995-’02, ’04, ’14, ’16-’23).
  • BYU and Texas Tech history: The Red Raiders have a 6-2 lead in the series and are on a two-game winning streak. Texas Tech has never visited Provo.

West Virginia

  • Overview: WVU is coming off one of its most successful seasons ever in 2023, winning a share of the Big 12 title, the first conference championship since 1996. The Mountaineers will be strong again this upcoming season if only because junior infielder JJ Wetherholt is returning. Wetherholt was a National Player of the Year finalist who led the nation with a .449 batting average with 16 home runs, 24 doubles, and 36 stolen bases. The Mountaineers did lose five players to the pros, however, so unless new faces take a leap, West Virginia will likely be a step behind the Big 12’s top tier.
  • Last season finish: 1st in Big 12 at 15-9, 40-20 overall.
  • Top players: JJ Wetherholt (Jr., 2B, Unanimous All-America First Team)
  • Conference titles: 15 (1955, ’61-’64, ’67, ’81-’82, ’84-’88, ’96, ’23) 
  • NCAA tourneys: 14 (1955, ’61-’64, ’67, ’82, ’85, ’87, ’94, ’96, ’17, ’19, ’23)
  • BYU and West Virginia history: None.

Kansas State

  • Overview: The Wildcats have won one conference title in the last 80 years, but Kansas State is trending upward. KSU finished fourth last season, its highest rank in the standings since winning that one title in 2013. They have one of the best closers in baseball and a lot of bats; now they need some starting pitching to stay in the upper echelon of the Big 12.
  • Last season finish: 4th in Big 12 at 13-11, 35-24 overall.
  • Top players: Tyson Neighbors (Jr., P, All-America First Team), Kaelen Culpepper (Jr., INF, All-Big 12 honorable mention).
  • Conference titles: 5 (1907, ’28, ’30, ’33, ’13).
  • NCAA tourneys: 4 (2009-’11, ’13).
  • BYU and Kansas State history: The Wildcats hold a 5-4 advantage. The two teams first played in 1971 but didn’t face off again until 2007, then played four years in a row. BYU has won the last two in 2010 in Provo.

Kansas

  • Overview: Freshman Kodey Shojinga came in last season and hit .378 for the Jayhawks, who beat Texas in the Big 12 Tournament before finishing their season. Kansas also tied a school record with 75 home runs and three of the four Jayhawks to hit 10 or more home runs in 2023 return this year. But Kansas will need to lower its team ERA of 6.21 to be competitive.
  • Last season finish: 8th in Big 12 at 8-16, 25-32 overall.
  • Top players: Kodey Shojinaga (So., 2B, Freshman All-American, Big 12 Freshman of the Year), Janson Reeder (Sr., DH, All-Region).
  • Conference titles: 3 (1922-’23, ’49).
  • NCAA tourneys: 5 (1993-’94, ’06, ’09, ’14).
  • BYU and Kansas history: The series is tied at six games apiece. Most recently BYU went to Lawrence and swept a three-game series in 2016. BYU also beat Kansas in a 1994 NCAA Regional game.

Oklahoma

  • Overview: The Sooners finished seventh in the Big 12 last year, their lowest finish since 2019. OU returns almost everyone; the question is, will the roster make the leap in skill with their experience, or will they finish middle of the pack?
  • Last season finish: 7th in Big 12 at 11-13, 32-28 overall.
  • Top players: Bryce Madron (Jr., OF, All-Big 12 honorable mention), Kendall Pettis (Sr., OF, All-Big 12 honorable mention).
  • Conference titles: 22 (1930-’31, ’33, ’35-’36, ’39-’40, ’46-’47, ’51, ’53, ’55-’56, ’72-’75, ’77-’78, ’86, ’92, ’95).
  • NCAA tourneys: 40 (1947, ’51, ’53, ’55-’56, ’72-’77, ’79, ’82, ’84-’89, ’91-’92, ’94-’95, ’97-’98, ’00, ’02, ’04-0’6, ’08-’13, ’17-’18, ’22-’23).
  • BYU and Oklahoma history: Oklahoma leads, 8-2. The two teams most recently played four games in Las Vegas in 2015; the Sooners won three of four.

Baylor

  • Overview: Baylor has struggled recently, posting back-to-back losing seasons and placing at the bottom of the Big 12. The bats struggled last year as the Bears’ .254 average was 261st out of 295 teams. To help its cause, BU has brought in a few transfers including two familiar faces for BYU fans: Enzo Apodaca (Jr., OF) from Gonzaga and Ryan Martinez (So., INF) from San Francisco.
  • Last season finish: 9th in Big 12 at 6-18, 20-35 overall.
  • Top players: Kolby Branch (So., SS, Freshman All-American), Cortlan Castle (Jr., C, All-Big 12 honorable mention).
  • Conference titles: 5 (1923, ’66, ’00, ’05, ’12).
  • NCAA tourneys: 21 (1948, ’77-’78, ’91, ’93, ’98-’03, ’05-’07, ’09-’12, ’17-’19).
  • BYU and Baylor history: The series is tied, 1-1, with Baylor winning in 2009 and BYU winning in 2010.

UCF

  • Overview: UCF begins its inaugural Big 12 season with a new head coach: Alum Rich Wallace return to the Knights to try and return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017. Last season, UCF loved the long ball, ranking 14th in the nation with 1.85 home runs per game.
  • Last season finish: 4th in AAC at 12-12, 33-26 overall.
  • Top players: Andrew Sundean (Sr., C, All-AAC First Team), Andrew Brait (Sr., INF).
  • Conference titles: 5 (2000-’02, ’04, ’17).
  • NCAA tourneys: 12 (1989, ’93, ’95-’97, ’00-’02, ’04, ’11-12, ‘17).
  • BYU and UCF history: None.

Houston

  • Overview: The Cougars have historically been a solid program with 15 NCAA tourneys since 2000. Unfortunately, none have come in the last five years as Houston has been average in their final AAC years. All-American Justin Murray returns as an infielder and the team’s best closer, but it’ll take some work to regularly compete in the Big 12.
  • Last season finish: 2nd in ACC at 17-6, 36-23 overall.
  • Top players: Justin Murray (Sr., UTL, All-American).
  • Conference titles: 11 (1950-’51, ’53, ’59-’60, ’99-’00, ’02, ’15, ’17, ’18).
  • NCAA tourneys: 22 (1951, ’53, ’58, ’60, ’66-’67, ’82, ’85, ’87, ’90, ’97, ’99-’03, ’06, ’08, ’14-’15, ’17, ’18).
  • BYU and Houston history: None.

 Cincinnati

  • Overview: The Bearcats have a new coach entering this season — Jordan Bischel takes over after spending five years at Central Michigan. Cincy hasn’t had a record more than five games about .500 since 2008. Bischel may bring the Bearcats to glory, but it’ll take longer than one year. They’ll just try to stay out of the Big 12 basement in 2024.
  • Last season finish: 5th in AAC at 10-14, 24-33 overall.
  • Top players: Kerrington Cross (Jr., UTL, All-AAC).
  • Conference titles: 13 (1918, ’20-’21, ’23, ’28, ’30, ’58, ’61, ’65, ’67, ’69-’70, ’95).
  • NCAA tourneys: 6.
  • BYU and Cincinnati history: None.
TCU pitcher Cohen Feser (28) gets a hug from the catcher Karson Bowen after the Frogs’ win over Oral Roberts at the NCAA College World Series in Omaha, Neb., Tuesday, June 20, 2023. | John Peterson, Associated Press