In a sport full of uncertainties, one thing is for certain, the weather won’t be the challenge for BYU’s young baseball team on opening weekend. Instead, it will be USC, Ohio State and Grand Canyon. The Cougars begin play in the MLB Desert Invitational Friday night against the Trojans (5 p.m., 107.9 FM, BYU Radio App) at Sloan Park in Mesa, Arizona.

“There are a lot of unknowns, but this team loves being here, and they love working hard.” — BYU baseball coach Trent Pratt

BYU will face the Buckeyes on Saturday (5 p.m.) and Grand Canyon on Monday afternoon (1 p.m). Sloan Park is the spring training home of the Chicago Cubs. The Cougars are one of eight teams in the field, which also includes Kansas State, Cal, Georgetown and Boston College. In addition to radio coverage, the games will be streamed live on MLB.com.

“We are grateful to be in this tournament and we are looking forward to 70 degrees and playing in the sunshine,” said BYU’s second-year head coach Trent Pratt (40-37). “There is a lot of anxiety and excitement. We are trying to figure out what our team is.”

Gone from BYU is the bulk of last season’s run production. Austin Deming, Cole Gambill, Ryan Sepede, Jacob Wilk and Ozzie Pratt combined for 66 doubles, 58 home runs and 199 runs batted in.

New faces

Pratt will look to a cast of newcomers, including Crew Robinson, Bryker Hurdsman, Chipper Beck and Kuhio Aloy, to fill the void. Pratt also returns catcher Collin Reuter and infielder Brock Watkins. Injuries sidelined Reuter last season and kept Watkins off the field for all but eight games.

Luke Anderson, Easton Jones and Parker Goff return for their sophomore seasons. Each played significant innings as freshmen. Cooper Vest begins his junior year with the best returning batting average (.359).

The Cougars have assembled 15 pitchers, led by Bryce Robison, who went 7-3 in 2023. Mason Olsen returns with the most innings of work (81.1) and Boston Mabeus is back as a familiar face for late-game appearances. Sprinkled around those three and a few others is a fountain of youth.

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“We are talented, but inexperienced,” Pratt said. “There are a lot of unknowns, but this team loves being here, and they love working hard.”

Pratt’s staff is mostly new, too. Seeking some fresh energy, Pratt hired assistant coaches Tyler Coolbaugh from the University of Arizona and former Cougar Adam Law from the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Pitching coach Abe Alvarez returns for his second season.

BYU finished last season 24-28 and 13-14 in their final year in the WCC. The Cougars have 11 games to get ready for the Big 12 opener at West Virginia on March 7.

USC vs BYU

BYU and USC haven’t met in baseball in 22 years and the Cougars hope starting a season against USC goes better than their storied history of ending one.

The Trojans beat BYU 5-3 in the 1968 College World Series. They beat the Cougars again 8-6 in the 1971 CWS. USC edged BYU 9-8 in the first round of the 1988 NCAA Tournament and in their last meeting, the Trojans defeated the Cougars 13-10 in the 2002 NCAA Regional final.

Across the campus landscape, BYU sports are holding their own against USC. In fact, the most recent battles in football, women’s soccer, men’s volleyball, cross-country, men’s indoor/outdoor track and field, women’s indoor track and field and women’s volleyball all favor the Cougars.

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Baseball has been a tougher challenge.

The Cougars are 6-22 all-time against USC and they will seek their first win over the Trojans since March 23, 1979, long before anyone on Pratt’s roster was born. Back then, Dallin H. Oaks was BYU’s president, gas was 59 cents a gallon and “Rocky” was the No. 1 hit at the box office.

Delivering a knockout punch against USC on Friday is no easy chore. It might even require a Hollywood finish, but these Cougars are just young enough to think they can do it.

Play ball.        

BYU players take a knee prior to game against Pepperdine during final homestand of the 2023 season. The Cougars open their 2024 campaign Friday against USC in Arizona. | Donovan Kelly, BYU Photo
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