Top-seeded Gonzaga is in Stockton, California, for the West Coast Conference Tournament after winning all nine of its conference series for the first time since joining the WCC in 1996.
The Bulldogs will face the winner between No. 4 BYU/No. 5 Loyola Marymount on Thursday at 3 p.m. at Banner Island Ballpark.
The 10th-ranked Zags (34-15) took two of three from BYU (33-20 WCC) in Provo, Utah, at the end of March, dropping the first game of the series before taking the final two.
It was Gabriel Hughes’ first loss of the season as he went six innings, allowing four earned runs with seven strikeouts.
Gonzaga won two of three games from the Lions (19-32-1) in Spokane at the end of April.
It was Hughes’ seventh win of the season as he went seven innings, allowing two earned runs and striking out 11 batters.
“We’ve got to bring our best shot every day to each team, because you don’t get another game to figure it out,” Hughes said.
“Plus, obviously, the double-elimination part of it. So, every loss is big, and it means every game is big. The biggest thing is that every day you get someone new, you’re going to get their best shot, because we’re the No. 1 team in the conference, we have that target on our back.”
If the Bulldogs win three games in Stockton, they will win the tournament and receive an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament with a good chance to host a regional site for the first time in program history. The WCC Tournament is a loser-out Wednesday before shifting to a double-elimination format the rest of the way.
The Zags were in a similar position a season ago but failed to win the final series of the season against San Diego, all but eliminating their chances to host.
They did crack the final 20 schools selected to host for the first time in 2021, before the final 16 were revealed with Spokane not on the list.
But this season, the Zags were ready for each game to feel like it was a “make-it-or-break-it” game to host a regional.
Hughes said that as the season wore on, each midweek and weekend game had weight. If the Bulldogs wanted to reach another first for the program, the intensity had to be there for every game.
“To be the first team to host a regional, I think it’s an incredible opportunity,” Hughes said. “And it just proves that we really do have to show up every day, ready to bring it, because every game carries so much.”
It is all about winning now and continuing a tradition that began in the early 2010s with Marco Gonzales and his teams as well as the teams in 2016 and ’17 that won multiple championships in a row, Hughes said.
“I think it’ll be easier just to raise our level of focus and raise our intensity for each game,” Hughes said.
With the adjustments to their nonconference schedule, the Bulldogs have continuously played a tough schedule against premier teams throughout the country. This has set them up well for both conference play and positions them well for better seeding.
“I think we try to reinforce to our guys they’re definitely good enough to play on a big stage, they have proven that going out in the nonconference, winning some big games,” assistant coach Brandon Harmon said. “They can compete with anybody and I think they know that and we believe that as a staff and as a program.”
With an NCAA Tournament berth all but locked up with a regular-season WCC title, the Bulldogs can now shift their focus toward the postseason. They have been successful in postseason but haven’t quite eclipsed the hump to host a regional or make it to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series.
“Now we’re on to our next goal, which is going and seeing if we can win this tournament title and get ourselves a chance to potentially host a regional,” GU assistant coach Brandon Harmon said. “So everything’s big, there’s nothing taken for granted here going forward.
Confidence is high in the Bulldogs’ dugout as every WCC series was – at a minimum – a series win. But that doesn’t mean that expectations are too high. The Zags are looking at every potential game as a single game without looking at the impact of that potential win.
“You also can’t get complacent,” sophomore William Kempner said. “That’s a big thing for me is that I like to let our guys know that every second anything can happen.
“We’re in the dugout, and I have to tell the bench that we have to stay in that game. It could be a 5-5, 5-0 game, doesn’t matter. We have to stay locked and stay going with it.”
As the baseball team builds its legacy, with a potential to expand it this weekend, it does feel the GU basketball shadow that looms over them. But don’t tell Kempner that. He expects the baseball team to come out and prove its worth this postseason.
“It’s all it’s about pride,” Kempner said. “But it’s also about the history, about Gonzaga as a whole. I mean, we’re told we’re a basketball school sometimes and now we got to come out and just kind of prove that wrong a little bit.
“And if we host a regional, that’s big time, big time for Spokane, too.”
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