NCAA Regional: Grand Canyon finds its way in Division I.

FAYETTEVILLE – Andy Stankiewicz was having trouble scheduling major college programs as the former seven-year major league infielder steered Grand Canyon University into the NCAA Division I ranks for the 2014 season.

Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn did not balk at scheduling the Antelopes, who played a two-game series at Baum-Walker Stadium in both 2017 and 2020.

“When we first got to Division I status, as a coach trying to schedule, it’s some teams don’t want to deal with that because you’re not eligible for postseason and they’re concerned about RPI,” Stankiewicz told the Arkansas Democrat -Gazette on Tuesday.

“Coach Van Horn, right out of the gate, was like,‘ I know that your team will play hard and will play well. We’ll be happy to have you come and play at our place. ‘

“That meant a lot to me that he was like, hey, come on in and play. I wanted to. Getting our program moving in the Division I era, I wanted them to see the best in the country. I wanted them to travel and see what it was going to take and what the competition is like at the highest level. ”

The friendship between Van Horn and Stankiewicz had already been formed when Van Horn was the manager of the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team and Stankiewicz was serving as the manager for an 18-and-under national team.

Now the friends will meet for the first time in the postseason in the opening round of the NCAA Stillwater (Okla.) Regional at noon Friday at O’Brate Stadium.

The Razorbacks (38-18) are the 2 seed from the region, while the Western Athletic Conference champion Antelopes (41-19) are the 3 seed. Host and No. 7 national seed Oklahoma State (39-20) faces Missouri State (30-27), winners of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in Friday’s 6 pm game.

Van Horn was complimentary of Stankiewicz and his program on Monday, saying Grand Canyon is an up and coming school and that Stankiewicz was a good friend and a great coach.

“When I’ve talked to him and competed against him, I think we have a lot of the same ideas about baseball and the way you do things,” Van Horn said. “I have a lot of respect for him.”

Stankiewicz, who played in the big leagues with the New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Montreal Expos and the inaugural season for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998, made his first appearance in Fayetteville as an Arizona State assistant coach in 2009, when Arkansas won a pair. of games 7-3 and 8-7 when both schools were ranked no. 1 in various polls.

“I know they were crazy games,” Stankiewicz said. “I’d never been to a Tuesday-Wednesday where there were like 11,000-12,000 fans. I’m thinking, ‘Wow.’ People had told me about Arkansas baseball and the fan base and all that and I was like, ‘OK, this is different. I got it now. ‘”

The Razorbacks are 4-0 against the Grand Canyon, with 11-2 and 6-1 wins in 2017 and 6-1 and 10-9 victories on March 10-11, 2020, the final games before the covid-19 pandemic wiped out the season.

The Antelopes powered their way to the WAC regular-season crown with a 25-5 record, including five sweeps in the league’s West Division.

“I don’t care what conference you’re in, if you win 25 out of 30 games, you’re doing something right,” Stankiewicz said. “I’m just proud of the way the guys played in the conference. Out of conference we played pretty well, too. ”

The Antelopes notched seven wins over Power 5 opponents, including 19-3 and 11-7 victories over Arizona, a home sweep of then-No. 4 Texas Tech by scores of 9-4 and 8-7 and a 5-1 victory over then-No. 7 Stanford in San Diego.

Those impressive wins probably held the key to the Grand Canyon at-large bid to the NCAAs after the Antelopes lost back-to-back games to Abilene Christian to wrap up their appearance in the conference tournament.

Grand Canyon was listed as one of the last four teams in the bracket by the selection committee.

“I think we sweated it out pretty good,” Stankiewicz said, regarding the Grand Canyon’s late appearance in the bracket. “It was an exciting moment and exhilarating because there wasn’t any kind of guarantee so that part made it even more exciting.”

Stankiewicz, who knew Kansas City Royals General Manager Dayton Moore, father of Arkansas second baseman Robert Moore, through his big league connections, coached the younger player on the national 18U team. He thought the Antelopes might have a chance to land Moore before he enrolled early at Arkansas during the 2019-20 school year.

“Yes, so I tried to get Dayton to tell Robert,‘ Don’t be in a hurry. I want to meet him and spend time, ‘”Stankiewicz said. “But when Arkansas comes knocking, I can’t take it long for him to choose Arkansas. It’s the right decision. Hey, come on, let’s look at this objectively. That was [a few] years ago. We were still in the process of building. ”

Stankiewicz’s reputation in baseball circles and the growing program has allowed the Antelopes land sons of big leaguers like current shortstop Jacob Wilson (son of Jack) and center fielder Homer Bush Jr.

Wilson, a semifinalist for the Golden Spikes Award, is hitting .353 with 11 home runs and 64 RBI, five behind team RBI leader Tayler Aguilar (20 HR, 69 RBI).

“He’s really gifted with the bat,” Stankiewicz said. “He puts the ball in play. And he’s gotten bigger and stronger. That’s kind of the fun thing too. The kid did not hit a home run in high school. I think he hit four or five his freshman year and I think he’s got 11 now.

“He’s getting better and better, just kind of filling out. … He was kind of a thin, lanky kid who hadn’t really grown up yet. ”

One of the strengths of the Antelopes is their bullpen, led by closer Vince Reilly (7-1, 4.15 ERA, 14 saves). The team’s earned run average of 4.48 ranks 47th in the country. They are hitting a robust .308 for the nation’s No. 13 batting average.

Stankiewicz said Grand Canyon would start either 6-0 right-hander Nick Hull (7-1, 3.89), a senior senior, or 6-3 freshman right-hander Daniel Avitia (8-4, 3.59) brother of former Antelope catcher David Avitia, who is now a volunteer assistant on the team. David Avitia grounded into a double play with the tying run at third base in Arkansas’ 10-9 win over the Grand Canyon on the final play of the 2020 season.

Stankiewicz said he thinks his team is solid, not pitching or hitting dominated.

“I think I would label us as just kind of a balanced ball club,” he said. “We throw strikes on the mound. Our defense is pretty solid, and we put the ball in play. We don’t strike out, typically we don’t.

“We try to put the ball in play and put pressure on the defense, so I think that’s just kind of been the way we’ve done it. Nothing like, “Oh man, these guys can really hit” or these guys can really pitch. “

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