Utah’s advance to NCAA tourney is its first since 1960

By Marco Villano, Staff Writer

For the No 6 seeded Utes baseball team, a tournament win seemed out of the question–to everyone but themselves, that is.

On Saturday afternoon, Utah did something that no team has ever accomplished in Mountain West Conference history–winning the tournament as the final seed in the conference. The road was longer than most, but the Utes overcame adversity to take the title and earn their first bid to the NCAA Tournament since 1960.

“What a tremendous feat that our guys accomplished the whole week,” said head coach Bill Kinnenberg. “Our pitchers were on fumes and the guts they all showed was indicative of what they wanted.”

The pitchers weren’t the only players running on fumes, as Utah finished the tournament with a 5-1 record over a span of five days.

With the MWC having arguably the strongest group of teams in its 10-year history, the road to the championship was not an easy one, not by any means. It all started with a bang after the Utes defeated No. 3 ranked BYU 2-1 in a 10-inning thriller. From there they moved on to the winner’s bracket, where they faced the tournament favorites, the No. 10 team in the country, TCU.

With Brian Budrow on the mound, Utah overcame the Horned Frogs in a 9-7 victory.

After that win, things started looking even better for Utah.

The Utes picked up their first loss against San Diego State in their third game of the week. It brought them down from their high horse after giving up an 8-1 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning, losing 9-8. It seemed that Utah’s bullpen would be the demise of this historic run.

In the elimination bracket, with only three teams remaining in the tournament, it was crunch time for the Utes, who were faced with another contest against TCU.

The two teams played roll reversal after the Utes jumped to a 6-0 lead by the fifth inning. With Bryn Card on the bump, Utah was able to hold off the Horned Frogs 6-4, making history by being the first No. 6 seed to make the championship.

With a loss already on their record, the Utes would have to do something extra special to beat the undefeated Aztecs in the final.

Jordan Whatcott pitched a stellar game in the first game against San Diego State, giving up a single run in six innings on the mound. Without much depth in the rest of his bullpen, Kinnenberg decided to go with usual starter Budrow to relieve Whatcott on the bump. Budrow picked up the save after going three innings, giving Utah a 4-1 win.

The final game of the tournament was a blowout in the Utes’ favor, 9-3. Everything was clicking in the true championship game, just as it had been all week for this scrappy bunch. The cheap hits were dropping, the pitching was on and they were able to bring home a nice piece of hardware on top of the hill.

“They were determined from the onset that they were going to compete here, and they did,” Kinnenberg said. “The mental toughness of our team really showed this week and the determination that they had coming into the conference tournament was evident through their energy level.”

When it was all said and done, six Utah players were named to the MWC All-Tournament Team, including tournament MVP freshman left fielder Tyler Yagi. Yagi had been Utah’s money guy during the run, as he finished with 10 hits in six games. Although the pitcher was solid all around, Whatcott and Greg Krause were the only Utes pitchers to make the All-Tournament Team.

With an unlikely title already set in stone, Utah has its sight set on a run in the NCAA Tournament. The Utes’ first game of the NCAA Regional is against the country’s No. 4 ranked team, Cal-State Fullerton, on Friday.

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