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From last to first: Utah baseball defies odds en route to record-setting season, Pac-12 title hopes

SALT LAKE CITY – When the preseason poll was released in February, there were few supporters of the Utah baseball program – and for good reason.

The Utes were picked to finish 10th out of 11 teams, continuing a trend of shutting down season after season since the baseball team won Utah's first men's championship in the Pac-12 era in 2016.

However, outside of that championship season, the Utes have only finished fifth (2016-17) and have finished at best 10th in the conference standings during their time in the Pac-12. So it wasn't an unrealistic prediction that Utah would end up at the bottom for another season.

But with the Pac-12 chapter soon coming to an end, it's the belief the team had in each other before the season began that helped propel the Utes to the No. 1 seed in the conference and their first top-25 ranking have achieved in program history with three conference series remaining to be played in the regular season.

And no one on the team takes that for granted.

“I don’t think we can be happy with where we are,” said senior outfielder Kai Roberts, who has seen more downs than ups in his Utah career. “I mean, this is the best record Utah has had in, I don't even know how long, but just continuing to keep that chip on our shoulder and playing every game like it's our last, I think it will take us to the end.”

Utes head coach Gary Henderson added: “It just validates the things you sell to your kids, the program you put together and again the foundation you lay. The personalities, attitudes, work ethic, how you build a squad. “It's just a little confirmation that we still have a few games to play, but it's nice to be noticed.

Utah has caught the eye, especially after a weekend win against an admittedly inferior UCLA club this season.

This is a team that is currently ranked No. 25 in the D1Baseball Top 25 rankings and is projected to be the No. 3 seed in the NCAA baseball postseason in the Lexington region. And with a conference record of 14-7 (29-13 overall) and just one loss in the conference series – against preseason favorite Oregon State – the Utes are well-positioned for another shot at the Pac-12 championship (and maybe even more).

“When we came here as freshmen, we weren’t very good,” said Roberts, who prepped at Skyridge High and saw the program firsthand. “Seeing the program turn around like that was one of my favorite baseball memories and one of my favorite memories of my life.”

So how did the Utes go from last place to first in one season? Henderson praises “the foundation” he and the coaching staff have built (not to mention the actual talent on the field).

“I think you have to have an idea of ​​what you want to base it on,” Henderson said. “I think if we can agree on that, that's the beginning. Then you start looking at the personalities and of course the positions. You can't do it without catching, pitching and center field defense, but I think if you have one.” A really clear idea of ​​what you want to establish as the foundation of your program gives you a fighting chance. And we feel like we've done a good job in this area.

Utah has a roster of experienced talent that will serve the team well with its variety of hits – Utah is not a power-hitting club, but has effectively multi-hitted all season – and a bullpen that has the talent to start well and that Complete game great defense.

Utah Utes Core Jackson (10) celebrates in the dugout after his home run during a college baseball game between the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 9, 2024.
Utah Utes Core Jackson (10) celebrates in the dugout after hitting a home run during a college baseball game between the Utah Utes and the Brigham Young Cougars at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 9, 2024. (Photo by Megan Nielsen, Deseret -News)

It's not a roster of projected MLB standouts or preseason All-Americans, and the team's facilities still pale in comparison to their Pac-12 counterparts – some of which will soon be upgraded to a new stadium and baseball facility change – but it is a team that now has a connection to each other.

Many players said that this context was one of the biggest differences this season compared to previous years.

“Our chemistry hasn’t been that good in recent years,” left-handed starting pitcher Bryson Van Sickle said. “This year our chemistry is really good. … I think our team just cares more about it this year. Maybe it was more selfish in previous years. Now it’s for the team.”

“I guess we haven’t spent as much off the field in recent years,” outfielder TJ Clarkson said. “We feel like we’ve kind of come together off the field now. So, yeah, I think that kind of clicks too.”

All of this has led to success on the field – success of the first kind that represents a program.

“I'm not just speaking for myself, but I'm saying we're not going to let this go to our heads,” Van Sickle said. “We’re just going to keep pushing, try not to focus on that, just keep playing good baseball.”

And try to keep the fuel flowing after feeling in preseason that the team was overlooked despite the talent on the roster.

Although the Utah program is one of the greatest successes of all time, there is hope that it will become even more successful in the future. A good season doesn't immediately build a program, but it is a good stepping stone toward greater success.

This success could also come at a crucial time for the program. The university will soon be upgrading its resources and the team will have its own stadium and player area, which will undoubtedly help with recruiting and player retention.

The success on the field and the investment in the program can only be positive for a Utah program hoping to maintain momentum, Henderson said.

“I think any time you have success it helps, in any area,” Henderson said. “Fundraising, recruiting, fans in the stadium, improved facilities, I just think success breeds success. Again, you have to have a really clear idea of ​​where you’re going and what direction you’re going to take in order to achieve that.”

And at least for Roberts, Henderson has something on his plate in his fifth season as head coach.

“I think it’s all up to Coach Henderson,” Roberts said. “I think he's great with the guys and he makes us play with that chip on our shoulder and be grateful for what we have here. It's great to play with this chip. I think it really comes from the top down.” “

Anna Harden

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