For the second straight season, the Gonzaga baseball team was picked to win the West Coast Conference.
It isn’t surprising to find the Zags at the top of the projections as the team has been climbing steadily the past few seasons, gaining more traction in the ultracompetitive WCC.
Their ascent is helped by the way they construct their roster, and it all starts with recruiting players who fit the Bulldog culture.
While the prospect of playing for a Division I school with solid academics sounds enticing to most, the fact that Patterson Baseball Complex could be covered in snow – possibly until March – doesn’t exactly scream baseball paradise.
But entering his 17th season, head coach Mark Machtolf has a good grip on which players will slot nicely into his program, including those who don’t fit, such as fair-weathered players who would rather hit the beach after practice than bundle up to brave the cold.
“That’s part of the weeding-out process,” Machtolf said. “If (the weather) is No. 1 on your list, you should go somewhere else, and it works out well for you, it works out well for us too, because that kid doesn’t belong here.”
He points to the strong schedule and great academics as reasons players should be interested in GU.
“We recruit the specific types of kids that we really feel are going to fit into what we’re trying to do and things that are really important to us, like being good teammates and hard workers and good in the classroom,” he said. “They got a certain profile, and my assistants have done a great job of doing that, and we have a good nucleus of new guys, and we have an old nucleus of guys that have had experience.”
That experience is rooted in the fact that the Zags have made the NCAA Tournament in two of the last four seasons and have a WCC Tournament appearance in six of the last seven seasons.
Part of reason the Bulldogs have been so successful in postseason play has been their willingness to play anyone, anywhere.
This season, the Zags will play 15 games against 2019 NCAA Tournament qualifiers, up from 13 last season.
The logic behind this is to bump up their NCAA résumé to secure an at-large bid if they don’t win the conference tournament.
One of the more important roster pieces to help push for a postseason spot is someone who is no stranger to the Spokane weather, former North Central pitcher Alek Jacob, who will headline the Bulldogs’ rotation.
“The first thing is that I don’t know that people see, but he’s really got a tough mindset,” Machtolf said of Jacob. “Kind of unflappable. Not much bothers him. He’s really, really resilient.”
Jacob, a junior, went 5-1 with seven saves and a 1.60 earned-run average in WCC play last season. He held opposing hitters to a .200 batting average and he was added to the preseason All-American list by Collegiate Baseball Newspaper and Perfect Game.
“I had a great year last year, but you know, it’s a new year, so I got to go out this year and prove that I deserve that,” Jacob said. “Definitely gives me more motivation. Also, I think a lot of teams will be coming for me, too. So that’s nice. It’s kind of like I have a target on my back.”
Jacob also secured a preseason All-WCC nod along with two other Zags, redshirt juniors Ernie Yake and Brett Harris.
Yake returns after a .302 batting average with 30 runs batted in and 41 runs. Before last season, assistant coach Brandon Harmon called Yake the best all-around player in the conference as he is one of the top defensive infielders in the league.
Harris hit .305 with 26 RBIs and 22 runs a season ago and mans third base to lock down the left side of the infield with Yake.
The Zags open up their season on Friday at 5 p.m. against BYU at the Sanderson Ford College Baseball Classic in Surprise, Arizona.
It is the same tournament the Zags began the season with last year. They will face the Oregon State Beavers twice before they finish off the four-game stretch against New Mexico.
The Beavers were a No. 1 seed and regional host last season in the NCAA Tournament.
The other highlights of the schedule are a four-game series on the road against 2019 College World Series participant Arkansas and another two games against Oregon State later in the season.
The Bulldogs will have to wait three weeks before their first home series of the season against Cal State Northridge on March 6-8.
“I’m excited about the group and I think that they’ve worked really hard,” Machtolf said. “They have come together as a team and I think our makeup – as far as the type of young men we have – and the fact that they like each other … and they’ll battle for each other.”
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