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Gonzaga University Athletics

Gonzaga baseball ready to play ‘best of the best’ in challenging nonconference schedule

Gonzaga shortstop Connor Coballes rounds third base after his two-run homer against visiting Washington on May 2.  (James Snook/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Justin Reed The Spokesman-Review

The pinging of aluminum bats, the smacking of baseballs into a catcher’s mitt – both sounds the Gonzaga Bulldogs hope to do a lot of in the 2023 season as they gear up to open their season in Lubbock, Texas, against Texas Tech on Friday


For the first time since 2016, the Bulldogs won’t participate in the Sanderson Ford College Baseball Classic in Surprise, Arizona.

The event has been a constant at the top of the Bulldogs’ schedule, but the trip to Arizona follows a week later, with two games against Ohio State and Grand Canyon University.

“We’ll get to Arizona. We love playing there, we recruit there and great memories,” GU head coach Mark Machtolf said.

The quality of opponents the Zags are lined up to face remains the same.

For much of the past decade, Machtolf has loaded the spring and summer with RPI-boosting matchups. This year doesn’t disappoint.

Thirteen of the 19 opponents finished 2022 ranked in the top 150 in the NCAA’s final RPI ranking.

Machtolf said the Bulldogs have one of if not the toughest nonconference schedule in the country.

“It sounds awkward, but we try to expose ourselves because when you do that, you learn a lot about yourself,” he said. “It forces you to play people and to do things that you maybe wouldn’t do if you weren’t as challenged.”

After facing the 23rd-ranked Red Raiders (Baseball America), the Zags will go to No. 2 Tennessee on March 3-5 for a series .

Other big matchups include traveling to No. 18 Oregon State (April 10-11), No. 20 Oregon (April 25-26) and a weekend series at home against Oklahoma (May 12-14).

“That’s the way that we do things at this program,” GU junior pitcher Owen Wild said. “We choose to play the best teams we can to get us ready for the postseason. We’re playing the best of the best.”

GU’s West Coast Conference opener is at home against San Francisco March 17-19.

All of these challenges could end up benefiting the new faces – plus those who will be stepping into larger roles – as the Bulldogs hope to go to their fifth NCAA Tournament in seven years.

A lot of the growth will need to happen with the pitching staff that lost all three weekend starters (Gabriel Hughes, William Kempner and Trystan Vrieling) and impact reliever Brody Jessee to the MLB draft.

Stepping into the Friday ace slot is Wild, a right-hander who went 9-1 with a team-best 3.03 ERA with 86 strikeouts in 16 appearances.

“We’re going to miss (the previous starters) and they were very talented, but I think we have a bunch of really talented guys coming in or guys that maybe were here last year and didn’t have a huge role in the team,” Wild said. “Now they’re going to get their time to step out in the spotlight and hopefully shine here in the next couple of weeks.”

Wild left an impact in the 2022 postseason, going six shutout innings in relief against Wright State to help the Zags rally to a win.

This offseason, Wild spent the summer in Alaska and refined his stuff, gained a few ticks on his fastball and introduced a new pitch – a cutter.

While Wild is cemented into a weekend spot, the rest of the starting rotation is in flux.

Against Texas Tech, the Zags are rolling out Nate Deschryver on Saturday, junior Bradley Mullan Sunday and Ty Buckner on Monday.

Deschryver, a redshirt freshman from Silverdale, Washington, was the fifth-rated recruit in the state in 2021. He mixes a low-90s fastball with a change-up and a slider.

Mullan, a left-hander, appeared in 12 games a season ago, using a deceptive windup that produces a low-90s fastball. He spent the winter improving his off-speed pitches.

Buckner, a Missouri State grad transfer, was a freshman All-American before injuries limited his mound time. He can locate four pitches and looks to recapture his form.

It will be up to pitching coach Brandon Harmon to find the right balance, but so much of what makes Harmon’s staff a success is his ability to let his pitchers do their own thing.

“You can look at the numbers. It’s shown a track record of pretty good success,” Wild said.

The drafted starters told Wild the team is his to command following the regional loss to Columbia last season .

“Seeing Gabe and Kempner, Trystan and Brody saying goodbye … ‘Go do what you do,’ ” Wild said.

Five of GU’s top six hitters by batting average return and starters at nine of the 10 positions.

One is third baseman Cade McGee, the reigning WCC Freshman of the Year. He led the Zags in home runs (10) while hitting .298 with a .907 OPS.

McGee said he expects to see every pitcher’s best stuff. As a freshman, the scouting report on him was minimal


“I have that bull’s-eye on my chest to prove again why I would receive those accolades,” McGee said. “There’s a lot to prove there and continuously just working on my craft.”

McGee worked this offseason to have the confidence to attack the first pitch, considering it might be the only good pitch of his at-bats.

“Just stepping into that role and having confidence straight out of the gate,” McGee said.

Also returning are the WCC Defensive Player of the Year, shortstop Connor Coballes (Gonzaga Prep), center fielder Enzo Apodaca, second baseman Savier Pinales, outfielder Grayson Sterling and catcher Ezra Samperi.

“Offensively, we have some veterans that can maybe carry the load a little bit more early until we get caught up (on the mound),” Machtolf said.

The one position that will see a new face is first base, where Brian Kalmer, the junior college player of the year, replaces Shea Kramer, who graduated.

Kalmer batted .421 with 20 home runs and 109 RBIs for Wabash (Illinois) Valley. He will see plenty of time in the middle of the order.

Junior college success doesn’t always translate to Division I accomplishments, though.

“Do they come and embrace how we go about our work and how we treat people and in school and off the field?” Machtolf said. “(The transfers) have been great with that. The next step is difficult.

“And so, the jury’s still out, and we’re excited to see how quickly they assimilate to this level of competition. There’s no easing into it. We’re playing the very best right from the start.”

The Bulldogs are the WCC favorite for the third consecutive season as they topped San Diego and BYU in the preseason coaches’ poll.

“I think there’s a measure of respect there,” said Machtolf, who is in his 20th season as head coach. “We don’t put a lot of confidence in the preseason stuff. It’s all speculation. We realize that we’ve been picked everywhere. Recently, they’ve given us the respect, but throughout the history of our program, we’ve been everywhere.

“So we know that we control our own destiny and that if we just do what we’re supposed to do as far as our work ethic and showing up every day, we’ll be in good shape.”