One week after a total collapse, unable to win one game in three attempts to clinch a regular-season title, the BYU baseball team accomplished the unthinkable and broke through in Mike Littlewood’s fifth season as the coach.
And now, for the first time in 14 years, the Cougars are playing in the NCAA tournament, having won four consecutive games to win the West Coast Conference tournament championship. A truly remarkable job, starting with the coach and extending all the way down the roster.
“Everything is going in the right direction right now at BYU,” said Littlewood, the former BYU player who spent from 1996-2012 as the Dixie College coach before returning to his alma mater.
Inheriting a program that was in a malaise for several years, Littlewood immediately went about trying overhaul the culture. Initially, the heavy lifting involved getting players to buy into the Littlewood way, which involves attention to detail in every aspect on and off the field.
Relying heavily on former coach Vance Law’s recruits, BYU went 32-21 in Littlewood’s first season. Two mediocre seasons followed before last season’s impressive 37-17 campaign.
This season the primary goal was achieved.
“The guy loves winning,” said second baseman Brennon Anderson during an interview on 97.5-FM and 1280-AM The Zone. “He doesn’t expect anything else. He comes in and he expects to win.
“He’s changed the program from being a team that’s OK with losing to being a team that goes out and expects to win every single day.”
Strangely enough, the character of BYU’s team shown through after hitting an ill-timed slump. Needing to beat Gonzaga only once to win the WCC regular-season championship in the final series, the Cougars proceeded to watch the Bulldogs win three straight and celebrate on their home field.
To compound the misery, BYU then lost its first game of the conference tournament to Loyola Marymount. By then, any momentum was long gone with the season slipping away.
“It was a down point in the season, for sure,” Littlewood said. “It was truly a low.”
Facing almost impossible odds, the Cougars rallied to beat Saint Mary’s and later advanced to the championship round, where they destroyed Gonzaga twice to capture the WCC’s automatic NCAA berth. One week apart, BYU turned the tables and celebrated with a dog-pile as Gonzaga looked on.
“It was pretty crazy the difference, just to go from where we were being on a high roll and then all of sudden we hit rock bottom against Gonzaga and Loyola,” said Anderson. “It was nice to get some revenge in front of them.”
The task now is to keep it going rather than being a one-tournament wonder. Don’t bet against Littlewood, who has the backing of the BYU administration.
Earlier this week, construction began on a new turf field that is being installed at Miller Park on the BYU campus. The new field will come with a heating system underneath it, allowing the team to play outside earlier in the season.
Littlewood said former player Dave Decker donated $1 million toward the project, with BYU covering the remaining costs. The project is expected to make a significant difference in recruiting.
Going forward, now that Littlewood has raised the bar, incoming players will join the program with the expectation of winning.
“Everybody has good players,” he said. “But it’s just getting guys who really want to buy in. They really want work hard every single day, not only on the field but (in) the class room and weight room.
“We just got really competitive guys who are really good players and good people. The culture is probably the biggest change.”
BYU has branched out in recruiting, bringing in players from Texas, Missouri and as far away as Virginia. The objective is to collect the best LDS talent along with any non-Mormon players interested in BYU.
“We cannot miss on good players who are members of the church,” Littlewood said. “That’s a given. You hate to get into a situation where you just assume a good player is going to want to come to BYU just because they’re members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That’s not going to happen. We want to build this program to where not only members of the church but non-members as well want to play for us.”