BYU baseball eyes future of sold-out crowds, championships

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The BYU baseball team understands what it’s like to be picked last.

BYU sports fans elect to watch the team behind football, basketball, volleyball and soccer. Winning demands respect, and despite putting together some decent seasons, BYU’s baseball team has not excelled since its trip to the NCAA Regionals in 2002.

Kelton Caldwell hits a home run to put BYU on the board during a game against San Diego.
Kelton Caldwell hits a home run to put BYU on the board during a game against San Diego. (Chris Bunker)

With Mike Littlewood as the new head coach, the Cougars have been busy turning losses into wins, finishing the 2013 regular season tied for second in the WCC with 31 wins, finishing in third place in the conference tournament.

Prior to coaching at BYU, Littlewood led Dixie State to a 563-238 record in 16 seasons, including a National Junior College World Series championship in 2004. He believes BYU can reach championship level.

“I think that if our expectations aren’t to go to Omaha, then there’s no reason to even be here,” Littlewood said. “When you get to the regional, it’s a miscue here, or a base hit there — a home run can get you to the next level. We want to make the league tournament this year, set the next goal of winning the tournament and then make the regional.”

Littlewood mentioned that his recruiting class coming in next season will very likely get the team to the next level, having a chance to realistically jump-start the program into the national spotlight once again. During the interim, the largest problem facing the Cougars is themselves.

“The biggest challenge was changing the attitude — we need to go out there every day and compete,” Littlewood said. “Last year out motto was ‘win the fight,’ coming from ‘Lone Survivor.’ Ultimately, we want to build the program the right way and get kids that are going to have that attitude; no matter if you’re up 10, down 10, tie game — whatever it is — you’re going to play hard every single pitch.”

Littlewood, who averaged between four and five players drafted to Major League Baseball teams each season at Dixie State, hopes that with last year’s MLB draft picks, fans will come out to witness potential big league talent. Just last year, four players were drafted, including Jacob Hannemann in the third round — the first Cougar to be selected that high since Dave Jensen in 2002.

“You don’t just replace the Jacob Hannemanns and the Adam Laws of the world,” Littlewood said. “Those are special players, and you don’t just replace them after a year. But the interest and the buzz that they created gives legitimacy to your program.”

One of those potential prospects is sophomore right-handed pitcher Kolton Mahoney, who threw the seventh no-hitter in BYU history in a 5-0 win over Nicholls State on March 5.

With top recruits in line, the Cougars are well on their way to winning but remain in the intermediate stages of trying to draw fans to the ballpark on a regular basis.

“There are two things I can’t control,” said BYU sports marketing director Bill Hoops. “I can’t control winning, and I can’t control the weather.”

Currently, sports marketing is targeting social media in hopes of drawing attention to Larry H. Miller Field. The “ROC” app, which allows fans to check in at sporting events and earn prizes, has already seen some success in baseball.

“We’ve got the ‘ROC’ app that’s working pretty well now; during basketball it progressed really quick,” Hoops said. “Here at baseball we had 75 fans check in at our first game and 60 at the San Diego game. Those using it are getting the benefit of using the app and enjoying the game while also getting prizes. We’re hoping it works.”

Attendance at Larry H. Miller Field continues to increase as the team becomes more successful. According to BYU sports marketing, the ballpark averaged 967 fans per game last year, up nearly 217 fans more than it had per game in 2011. This year, more than 3,000 attended BYU’s 20-3 win over Utah when Provo hosted the Utes on March 4.

Coach Littlewood thinks the Cougars’ baseball program is heading in the right direction — that players are beginning to not only say “win the fight” but are beginning to let that motto sink deep into the leather of their gloves. The athletes’ quest to win on the diamond is great, but what they need now is fans to fill the seats.

“I would say to the fans that we’re going to play hard,” Littlewood said. “I don’t mind if our guys get thrown out as long as they play hard. We will have some growing pains the next couple years, but we’ll have good talent, and we’re going to play hard.”

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