Utah Baseball Reflects on Historic Season

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Utah Men's Baseball team meets during an inning in the game vs. the UC Riverside at Smith's Ballpark on Saturday, April 16, 2016

For the U baseball team, the 2016 season was a dream come true. The perennial basement-dwellers of the Pac-12, the Utes finished last in the conference from 2012-2015. In that span, they won just 25 games. In 2016, Utah baseball shocked the state, and the West Coast, by winning the Pac-12 baseball title, the first men’s Pac-12 title in school history.

“I don’t know if it’s really hit us yet, or hit me yet, what the team accomplished with the championship,” said Utah baseball head coach Bill Kinneberg. “Naturally, it was exhilaration and a moment that I’m never going to forget, and I’m sure all the players and coaches aren’t going to forget it. It’s a special moment where all your hard work and your dreams and your goals for that particular point in time are accomplished.”

All of the team’s hard work came down to Utah’s final Pac-12 series, a three-game homestand against Washington. The winner of the series between the neck-and-neck Utes and Huskies would come away with the Pac-12 title. Utah dropped the first game of the series in a 5-4 heartbreaker as Washington scored the go-ahead run in the ninth inning, and the Utes would have to win the next two games to be crowned Pac-12 champions and earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Utah was up to the challenge, winning the second game of the series by a score of 12-8, carried by a seven-run seventh inning to set up a winner-take-all game.

On Sunday, May 29, there were 6,071 fans — a baseball attendance record — in attendance at Smith’s Ballpark to be part of history, and the Utes didn’t disappoint. Buoyed by four five run innings, Utah demolished Washington 21-7, and when the last out, fielded by Dallas Carroll, hit first baseman Hunter Simmons’ glove, the Utes dogpiled on the pitcher’s mound, and the crowd gave the team a standing ovation.

“Honestly, I think [the fans] really helped us win that game,” Carroll said. “Obviously, it’s cool because in years past, we haven’t had crowds like that. It’s something to hang our hat on, and hopefully they continue to support us.”

A day after the players took turns kissing and taking pictures with the Pac-12 trophy, the Utes learned their fate for the NCAA tournament. Utah would travel to Oxford, Miss., home of the Ole Miss Rebels, for its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2009, when now-Angel C.J. Cron led the Utes to the dance.

In the first game of the tournament, the Utes faced the Rebels, who were the No. 1 seed in the region. The Utes shocked the college baseball world again, and beat Ole Miss 6-5, scoring the winning run in the top of the 10th. The Utes would lose to Boston College in the next game, dashing their hopes of reaching Super Regionals, but the 2016 season was one that will live on in Utah baseball history.

“It was something that if you ask anyone on this team, coaches included, it’s something that we’ll never forget,” Carroll said. “Obviously, it wasn’t the result we wanted, but that experience, regardless of not winning, is something we’ll always remember.”

“That Friday night [against Ole Miss] was one of the most exciting and greatest baseball games I’ve ever been associated with,” Kinneberg said. “The crowd makes it special. Ole Miss is a very good team, and we played great and won. That night was a really great experience to be a part of, and it’s just too bad we didn’t finish.”

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On June 11, Ute pitcher Dalton Carroll was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the 21st round of the MLB Draft, joining teammates Stephen Fife and Tyler Wagner as hurlers in the big show.

“Honestly, that’s probably one of the biggest moments in my life, obviously [Dalton’s], and our family’s as well,” said Dallas Carroll. “It’s something that we grew up wanting, something that we’ve talked about since we could throw a ball. To see all the hard work he’s put in, to see his career is not done, and he gets to continue to play at such a high level, I’m happy for him.”

It’s a long way away, but it appears that the Utah baseball team won’t have to share a stadium anymore. Currently, the Utes play at Smith’s Ballpark, home of the Triple-A Salt Lake Bees. The ballpark is beautiful, but on a good day is still a 12-minute drive from campus. The Utes have to schedule around the home games of the Salt Lake Bees, which is not too ideal.

The ballpark seats 15,334, dwarfing the proposed stadium, which would seat around 2,000 fans. Also, with a stadium on campus, there is a better chance that students would swing by to catch a game.

“Obviously, playing at the Bees stadium is something special, and it’s a field that some people will never be able to play on,” Dallas Carroll said. “Having an on-campus field is more of a college atmosphere, getting the kids out there, getting the students out there. If you ask some people, they don’t know where we play at right now, so I think an on-campus stadium would be something that would draw out fans, and something big for the program.”

The stadium would be built on the current Utah baseball practice field, across the street from the Spence Eccles Field House on Guardsman Way.

“We are in the process of working with the neighbors and the administration and the board of trustees to get approval to use that property for what would be a different use than it is now,” said Utah athletics director Chris Hill. “What we’re really in now, is the stage of getting approvals for what we may want to do.”

Hill said that the stadium would be “totally, 100 percent funded by donor dollars.”

j.coles@dailyutahchronicle.com

@JoeAColes

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