Their moment on the big stage had elapsed. The page on the 2013 University of San Diego baseball team’s season was ready to be turned. But several minutes after a line drive smash off Connor Joe’s bat landed firmly in UCLA third baseman Kevin Kramer’s glove to clinch a 6-0 UCLA victory and the NCAA Los Angeles Regional title, there was still something left.
The visitors, wearing the camouflage jerseys they’d sweated, dirtied and fought valiantly in, stayed on UCLA’s Jackie Robinson Stadium field. It was here that USD Baseball Coach Rich Hill and his staff let the final act of this year’s team, one Hill described as his “most resilient,” be handled by those wearing a USD uniform for the last time.
“The reason why we’re late is (because) at the end of every season in our Torero culture, our Torero tradition, we get close and the seniors talk, the guys who are moving on to professional baseball talk and there’s a vulnerability in young men that really comes out at times like these,” said Hill roughly 30 minutes afterward to assembled media. “There are real feelings being shared. That’s what this thing is really about. We’re in higher education and the development of young people. The lessons learned on this baseball diamond, this year and in previous years, you can’t learn in a classroom. That’s why we’re in love with sport, especially USD baseball, because of what it represents, what it means and what it teaches our young people.”
Sunday’s win sent the Bruins (42-17) into a Super Regional meeting with Cal State Fullerton with a spot in this month’s College World Series on the line. For USD (37-25), in Hill’s 15th year as head coach and eighth trip to an NCAA Regional, the season ended with a West Coast Conference Tournament title to its credit and a 2-2 regional mark.
The Toreros reached the regional final, their first appearance in that spot since 2008, despite falling in the opening game, Friday’s 9-2 loss to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. USD, though, rallied with a satisfying 6-3 win Saturday to eliminate crosstown rival San Diego State behind a solid outing by pitcher Dylan Covey (pictured, above left). The Toreros avenged Friday’s loss by defeating Cal Poly 8-5 early Sunday. Key offense contributors included Joe, Troy Conyers and All-Regional Tournament selections Austin Bailey and Austin Green (pictured, top right). The team’s fate, though, was sealed when a fresher UCLA pounced on starter Max Homick for four runs in the first inning en route to the title victory. Green had USD’s lone hit, a fourth-inning double and Michael Wagner pitched commendable relief for 7 2/3 innings.
One player who had a tough weekend was star third baseman Kris Bryant, a projected Top 10 pick in the upcoming MLB First-Year Player Draft. The nation’s leader in home runs with 31 this year — also a USD single-season record — Bryant came into the regional with 62 RBIs and 78 runs scored. In Los Angeles, he managed two singles, scored two runs, drew four walks, was hit by a pitch, struck out three times and had zero RBI.
“I did not have the weekend I wanted to, I didn’t help my team as much as I wanted to,” said Bryant, who wiped away tears after Sunday’s finale. “I told (my teammates) ‘it’s been a fun year. It’s been the best decision I’ve made in my life to come here to USD. I shared it with special people, made some special friendships with people I know I can call on anytime and they’ll pick up the phone.’ Tonight was more than a baseball game to me. I look back on my three years at USD and I can’t put into words how special it was. Dylan Covey and Michael Wagner, my roommates for three years, they made these three years a whole lot of fun. There have been a lot of good memories.”
Bryant, a Golden Spikes Award finalist, has certainly been responsible for several memorable moments in 2013. Hill delivered a ringing endorsement of Bryant’s development, his talent, admirable character and tireless work ethic, but, in many respects, Bryant’s outstanding season was just one of many storylines for USD baseball this season.
The Toreros’ season began with the celebrated opening of Fowler Park and Cunningham Field, a $13.8 million first-class ballpark that gives the program a major boost for years to come. Not only does the stadium now have lights to play night games, a state-of-the-art clubhouse and office space for the coaching staff, but the 1,700 permanent seats (temporary seating can increase capacity to 3,000) allows Executive Director of Athletics Ky Snyder to bid on hosting NCAA Regionals and Super Regionals. In fact, the ballpark hosted CIF-San Diego Section high school championship games last weekend, demonstrating its purpose and value to the local community, too.
The ballpark’s mid-February opening weekend, however, provided USD with the first of its many hurdles to overcome. San Diego State, the first opponent, swept the then-No. 12 Toreros causing Hill to say his team was a “work in progress.”
Despite a nonconference series win at home against then-No. 2 Oregon State and individual wins against Cal State Fullerton and UC Santa Barbara, USD’s WCC record was 9-8 after an April 27 road loss against the University of San Francisco. After that game, Hill said, a players-only meeting was called to make sure the team was focused and playing for each other.
“Once we had the team meeting in San Francisco, things turned around and turned into something special,” Wagner said.
The Toreros won the last game of that road series at USF, part of a late 6-1 run to clinch the No. 2 seed for the inaugural four-team conference tournament. The Toreros beat BYU in the first game, but a 10-8 loss to USF put the Toreros into the loser’s bracket. A second win over BYU gave USD another shot at the Dons. This time, Conyers, a freshman, delivered an MVP-worthy performance in a 2-0 win to give USD the WCC title. Conyers allowed three hits and struck out nine in a 123-pitch complete-game effort.
The Toreros brought that confidence with them into the NCAA Regional, knowing it would be necessary in a competitive four-team field. Although the end result wasn’t to the team’s liking, the lessons learned, as Hill stated earlier, mean much more than the wins and losses on the field.
“There’s a lot of pride in this group,” Hill said. “We completely overachieved. This is a team that played in a regional with three Top 25 teams. We played in the L.A. Regional championship game after being 9-8 in conference and on the verge of not making our conference tournament. When I think of what this team accomplished, I think of words like rewarding … gratifying … satisfying. This is the most resilient team I’ve been around in my 26 years of coaching.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Top two photos courtesy of USD Athletics