Fresh off one of the more successful seasons in the Mark Machtolf era, the Gonzaga Bulldogs have built a foundation and culture that will allow them to push toward their elusive goals.
Machtolf is already hot on the recruiting trail after COVID-19 shuttered most – if not all – of those trips in 2020.
But that doesn’t mean Machtolf is ready to move on from his 2021 squad that he said dealt with the most turmoil because of injuries and COVID.
“It just really proves the resiliency of the group,” Machtolf said. “And I’ve never been more proud of a team.”
Outside of the turbulence, Machtolf had seen the Zags stack up wins and individual accolades during a season that was up in the air before it started.
Junior Alek Jacob picked up a second-team All-American award, becoming the eighth Zag in program history to earn that distinction and the first since Eli Morgan in 2017.
Senior Brett Harris earned third-team All-American and WCC Defensive Player of the Year.
Senior Ernie Yake was a semifinalist for the Brooks Wallace award, given yearly to the best shortstop in college baseball.
One of the more impressive stretches as a team came in the middle of the season when it won 10 of 11 games as it cemented its status as the team to beat in the West Coast Conference.
“It took some time for us to gel and then on top of that, we were playing really good (teams),” Machtolf said. “I think our nonconference schedule was ranked fourth in the country. So we go out and play the very best and so, .500 isn’t necessarily awful against those people earlier in the year.”
This has been the Machtolf way. Strengthen the RPI, play tough nonconference games and the rest will come together – including strong conference play and a better chance at an at-large bid if the Bulldogs don’t win the conference.
In the middle of that dominant midseason run, staff ace Jacob tossed a no-hitter against Pepperdine, which had just returned from its COVID pause.
After GU hit a COVID snag in the middle of its winning streak, the Bulldogs smacked Portland 12-4 in the first game before finishing off the sweep the next two days.
It was a testament to the toughness and togetherness the team exuded, Machtolf said.
During the tail end of the season, the Zags pushed to host a regional series at the Patterson Baseball Complex, but a season-ending series loss to San Diego pushed those dreams until at least next season.
They instead traveled to Eugene as the No. 2 seed as the University of Oregon hosted the Zags, LSU and Central Connecticut.
A dominant complete-game shutout from Jacob in the first game against LSU was followed by a few shaky pitching performances in the second game against the Ducks and a rematch against LSU in the next game.
GU didn’t advance to the Super Regionals – which would have been its first time reaching that milestone.
But even the season-ending loss won’t overshadow the potential for a few Bulldogs looking to their bright future.
Multiple Zags will have an opportunity to get a taste of pro ball this summer, considering that Jacob and infielders Harris, Yake and Ryan Sullivan all had offers to leave prior to this season.
They all chose to return, but the promise and pull of the majors is hard to turn down, especially twice.
“I’m happy that they’re getting the opportunity, because everybody who puts on a glove dreams of playing professional baseball,” Machtolf said.
“But you know, it is what it is and our kids, they’re going to get opportunities in itself.”
The MLB draft will be held July 11-13. That’s about five weeks later than usual, which forces a veteran college program like GU to adjust on the fly.
With so many juniors and seniors scattered on the roster, the possibilities of roster alignments are endless because Machtolf doesn’t know who is staying or leaving.
“It makes it a little tougher to manage,” he said.
Machtolf will hit the recruiting trail with a wide net, looking for the next player to sport a Bulldogs jersey.
The Zags are in the business of winning, but the coaching staff still believes in the school’s culture. The coaches want players who want to be Bulldogs. They also have to make sure they plan not just for the 2022 season, but for the 2024 season as well.
“So not only recruiting for our current needs, but you’re going out to three years in advance,” Machtolf said. “And so it’s kind of just a very fluid situation, it’s never-ending.”
Starting in 2022, Machtolf and the rest of the Zags will be working to advance further than they have.
“It was a great year, and we were able to accomplish some things, but there’s still work to be done,” Machtolf said. “Obviously, (athletic director) Mike Roth, our boss, is saying, ‘Hey, we’re never satisfied with getting to a regionals.’ No, we want to get to the Super Regional and on to Omaha, and we’re just going to keep pushing, pushing the envelope and keep knocking on the door and we just have to keep getting better.”
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