Gary Henderson’s mark on Utah’s program is being made.

This year’s Utes built on a record-breaking 7-1 start to the season, the best since 1980, and reached 20 wins in 28 games — the fastest Utah team to reach that mark since at least 1973.

“A winning culture encompasses a lot of things. Concentration, work ethic, positive attitude, making the best of any type of situation, communicate at a really high level, positive thoughts, all those types of things are important.”

—  Utah baseball coach Gary Henderson

The Utes have won all of their Pac-12 series but one, dropping two of three to No. 5 Oregon State, and nabbed series wins against Washington State, Cal and Stanford.

Before dropping their last two games — an 18-4 shellacking at the hands of CSUN and a 7-3 loss to rival BYU — the Utes had won six of their last seven. Even with the two losses, Utah still sits at 21-10, just two wins from surpassing their 2022 win total and six away from beating their 2023 win total with 23 games, plus the final Pac-12 baseball tournament, remaining.

In his third year at the helm of the program since taking over from longtime coach Bill Kinneberg, who retired after 18 seasons as the coach of the Utes, Henderson has established his culture and style — and the results are rolling in.

“A winning culture encompasses a lot of things,” Henderson said. “Concentration, work ethic, positive attitude, making the best of any type of situation, communicate at a really high level, positive thoughts, all those types of things are important.”

Kai Roberts, who leads the Utes with a .370 batting average, called Henderson a “wizard” that knows when to put an arm around a player and when a player needs a little tough love.

“He’s been really awesome with me,” Roberts said. " … I’m really honestly grateful for his impact on my life, both baseball and personal life.”

Utah head coach Gary Henderson stands with the players on the pitcher's mound during a college baseball game between the Utes and the BYU at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Part of the reason for the Utes’ fast start and quick cohesion, the team says, was the experience of being on the road for their first 15 contests. It’s easy to bond and build trust when you’re around your teammates 24/7 for a month.

Henderson set the tone for this season last fall with some tough practices and 6 a.m. workout sessions.

“Our culture here is we’re very, very close,” Roberts said. “That all starts in the fall, our very really hard practices and 6 a.m. lifts really brings a group together. I think that’s the biggest part, is we’ve been through hell together and now we’re on the winning side of that and we’re really pulling for each other.”

While chemistry and good vibes are no doubt an important part of a team, especially in baseball, you’ve got to have the talent to match.

Utah has had that so far, with the offense led by Roberts, who tops the team in OPS (1.087), hits (47), doubles (12), home runs (5), RBI (32), stolen bases (20) and is tied for the lead in triples (3) with Core Jackson.

He has steadily improved every year, and it’s all coming together in his senior season with the Utes.

“I think the biggest thing is I got a lot of experience, played three summers, four years of college baseball,” Roberts said.

Around Roberts is a solid supporting cast that’s scoring 6.9 runs per game, including Jackson (.339 average, five doubles, three triples, two home runs, 23 RBI) and Drake Digiorno (.307 average, nine doubles, 18 RBI, three home runs).

Utah Utes' Drake Digiorno (3) celebrates with Utah Utes' Core Jackson (10) after his home run during a college baseball game between the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

“We’re really tight as a team, it’s really easy to go play every night when you got 30 best friends in the dugout and they got your back and they want you to succeed. And when a group’s that tight, it’s really easy to go out and play with no pressure at all,” Roberts said.

While the Utes do have power, they can also play small ball. Led by Roberts and Jackson, who have swiped 32 bags, the Utes have 66 stolen bases on the year and rank in the top 25 in stolen bases per game. Roberts recently became the program’s all-time stolen base leader, totaling 53 on his career.

Though Utah’s pitching struggled in its last two outings, it’s been a strong point for the program this season, with Bryson Van Sickle, Merit Jones and Brett Porthan forming a solid starting rotation.

Micah Ashman has been crucial in save situations, with nine on the season, and he recently set the program record for all-time saves with 18 in his career.

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The foundation for the Utes’ success, the pitching staff had a 4.39 ERA (that grew to 4.89 after the last two losses) entering this week, which ranked fourth in the Pac-12.

“We’ve done a really good job of throwing strikes, competing in the box. Team defense has been solid,” Henderson said.

This season, Roberts said that the longtime coach’s philosophy allows the team to play looser.

“More of a process-based performance rather than a result-based. Because we’re so close together, we’re able to just go play with no pressure and really just give our best effort. And at the end of the night we take what we did good and what we did bad and we move on to the next game,” Roberts said.

Utah is the latest stop for college baseball lifer Henderson, who’s been coaching the college game since 1988.

His longest stint as a head coach was at Kentucky, where he compiled a 258–199 record, with the Wildcats reaching the NCAA regionals twice from 2009-16 before Henderson resigned.

After Kentucky, Henderson’s next job was at Mississippi State as a pitching coach, and following Andy Cannizaro’s resignation as head coach three games into the 2018 season, Henderson took the interim head coaching job. Under Henderson’s direction, the Bulldogs reached the College World Series in 2018, but the full-time job went to Chris Lemonis.

Henderson joined Utah’s staff in 2020 as an associate head coach under Bill Kinneberg.

“Some of them get an opportunity in professional baseball. Some of them get an opportunity in the business world. Some of them get into coaching, some of them get into teaching. Even had a few doctors along the way. So there’s a lot of things that I’ve been able to enjoy and experience.”

—  Utah baseball coach Gary Henderson

“I think the University of Utah is a tremendous place. Had a lot of respect for Bill Kinneberg, and it was an opportunity to get into the Pac-12 at that point in time, and I was very excited for the opportunity,” Henderson said.

What makes coaching college baseball so rewarding for the Utes’ skipper is the opportunity to impact people at a crucial period in their lives.

“I enjoy working with the kids and to see them get better, learn how to compete, achieve things academically, get their degrees, get jobs,” Henderson said.

“Some of them get an opportunity in professional baseball. Some of them get an opportunity in the business world. Some of them get into coaching, some of them get into teaching. Even had a few doctors along the way. So there’s a lot of things that I’ve been able to enjoy and experience.”

A perennial cellar-dweller in the Pac-12 — save for 2015, when the Utes won the conference — Henderson seems to have the Utes back on track again as they close out their time in the Pac-12 and prepare to enter the Big 12 next season.

“I think Mark Harlan and his team have done a tremendous job of giving us the tools that we need to be successful,” Henderson said.

“We’re very excited about the upcoming stadium being built, really looking forward to being a part of that process. Obviously moving into the Big 12, it’s going to be a very challenging experience for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”

Utah Utes head coach Gary Henderson watches during a college baseball game between the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News