Baseball rivalry with Utah a thrill for more than a century

BY 1908, the baseball rivalry between BYU and Utah was already firmly entrenched. Photo courtesy of BYU Lee Library University Archives; UAP 2.
BY 1908, the baseball rivalry between BYU and Utah was firmly entrenched. (Photo courtesy of BYU Lee Library University Archives; UAP 2)

The history of the baseball rivalry between the Cougars and the Utes predates any Deseret First Duel promotion.

Every game is up for grabs, and both teams fight tooth and nail to be able to lie down at night knowing they are the best in Utah.

The BYU Cougars will host the Utah Utes in Provo at Miller Park on March 4 to continue a series that started 119 years ago.

How a rivalry is built

The historic rivalry between the two teams began before Teddy Roosevelt became president of the United States and before the Rose Bowl first brought together star college football teams. In fact, the baseball component of the rivalry between BYU and Utah preceded those of football and basketball.

“The rivalry amongst the baseball people is just as strong as the rivalry between the football people,” said Mike Littlewood, current head coach of the BYU baseball team. “Utah’s just a team we never want to lose to.”

In 1895, before Brigham Young Academy became Brigham Young University, the first baseball game was played between the Wasatch rivals. That baseball game preceded the first inter-rival football game by at least a year and basketball by about 25 years.

The BYU baseball team played its first game against Utah in 1895. This is the 1915 BYU squad. Photo courtesy of the BYU Lee Library University Archives; UAP 2.
The BYU baseball team played its first game against Utah in 1895. This is the 1915 BYU squad. (Photo courtesy of the BYU Lee Library University Archives; UAP 2)

In more than a century of competition, BYU owns a 236-110-1 record over Utah. In the last 10 years, BYU has posted a 30-12 record over the Utes. The Cougars have swept the Utes in six different series over the last 10 years without being swept themselves.

Framing the 2014 rivalry contests

The Utes and Cougars will face off in four individual games for the 2014 season, two in Provo and two in Salt Lake City. Though BYU has been more successful in the last 10 years, the two teams split the series last year with two wins apiece. Both teams head into the first rivalry matchup of the season in different situations.

The Cougars stalled coming out of the gates for the first part of the season, winning only one of their first nine contests. The Utes, on the other hand, claim a modest 4-3 record, entering the rivalry game with a little more to be confident about.

“We played a tremendous schedule in our first nine games,” Littlewood said. “We’re just focusing on how to win with this team.”

The Cougars take the field this year having lost five players to the 2013 MLB Draft. Among those drafted are redshirt freshman outfielder Jacob Hannemann and junior infielder Adam Law, in the third and twelfth rounds of the draft, respectively. Utah entered the season having lost junior right-handed pitcher Trey Nielson to the draft.

Based on the numbers, either team could come out on top. This rivalry, however, is not defined solely by statistics; stories are what make history interesting.

Rivalries make the best stories

“If you win that game, you’re living on a high for that whole year,” said Brett Lopez, a senior designated hitter for the Cougars. “If you don’t win that game, you’re going to remember it every night before you go to bed.”

The pressure and intensity of a rivalry game is what Lopez experienced when BYU lost to Utah in the 11th inning of the series’ second game last year.

“The emotional toll that it took out of us was palpable,” Lopez said. “But to recover from that game and go ahead to win the Deseret (First) Duel that year was a big turning point in the season.”

Littlewood remembered when he played against Utah in 1987 and 1988, during which time he was involved with a bench-clearing brawl during a rivalry game.

“Off the field we respect each other, but it’s just not a team we want to lose to,” Littlewood said. “Once you get on the field with them, you just want to beat them.”

Dillon Robinson, a junior third baseman for the Cougars, has experienced his share of triumphs against the Utes and knows how good it feels to be victorious in a rivalry game. When he was a freshman, BYU was losing to Utah in the eighth inning when he belted a three-run home run, which put the Cougars ahead to win.

“The crowd was just electric, and it was a feeling I’ll never forget,” Robinson said.

The 2014 season is poised to yield more rivalry stories, which are seeds that grow into legends as important to the game as the outfield grass or the shape of home plate.

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