Thursday, May 29, 2008

DB Can Play

RT Staff Note: Many baseball critics have derided the choice of Dallas Baptist over more established teams like Oregon State. We think the selection of DB is significant because it proves that there are more options for young baseball players outside of the PAC 10, SEC, Big West and Big 12. Many young players that are discouraged that the big conferences didn't come knocking on their door, read this article. DB is a small independent D-I school that may just make some waves this year in the NCAA tourney.

By Andy Gardiner
Rice coach Wayne Graham has some advice for Texas A&M, Houston and Illinois-Chicago, who join upstart Dallas Baptist in the double-elimination regional of the NCAA baseball tournament that starts Friday in College Station, Texas.

"Be ready to play, because this is a hard-nosed team, a dangerous team," says Graham. "They have more 90 mph arms than we do, and they have veteran guys who can swing it."

Graham speaks from experience. His fifth-ranked Owls went 0-2 against DBU this season, benchmarks in a rugged Patriots schedule designed to impress the tournament selection committee.

Dallas Baptist finished 37-17, playing 36 games on the road or at neutral sites. The Patriots also had wins against 13th-ranked Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech. They beat Oral Roberts and Louisiana-Monroe, the top teams in the Summit League and Sun Belt Conference. They also are No. 29 in the NCAA power rankings and seeded second in the four-team regional.

DBU is the first full independent to make the NCAA field since Cal State-Northridge in 1992. Miami (Fla.) made it as a baseball independent while other sports played in the Big East before the school joined the ACC as a full member. The Patriots open NCAA play Friday against Houston (39-22).

"For us to make a regional as an independent we knew we would have to play an aggressive schedule," says first-year coach Dan Heefner. "Playing top-25 teams day in, day out, mostly on the road — we didn't know how that would pan out. But for the most part we got it done."

Dallas Baptist competed in NAIA from 1982-2002, making 10 appearances in the NAIA World Series and twice finishing national runner-up. After one season in NCAA Division II the Patriots became a provisional Division I member in 2004 and received full status in 2006.

Heefner became head coach this season after three years as an assistant.
"Coming in I really liked our club," he says. "It was probably the most balanced team in terms of offense and pitching in my time here, and we had a chance to be really good defensively. I thought we could do some great things."

All nine Patriots starters are native Texans, and the majority of the team comes from the greater Dallas area.

"If you have to be an independent, this is probably the best place to be because of the number of talented high school players and really good college programs all around you," Heefner says.

Outfielder Nick Santos and closer Tyson Bagley are seniors who transferred from junior colleges, but most of the Patriots were recruited from the high school ranks.
"We're not going to get the blue-chip All-American, so we have to develop players over the course of four years," Heefner says. "We do a lot of teaching and put a lot of emphasis on the fundamentals."

Evan Bigley personifies the type of player at the heart of DBU's success. A Dallas native, Bigley hit .293 as a freshman, .329 as a sophomore and .340 this season with 13 homers and a team-high 58 runs batted in.

"I think we're a really disciplined team that is always looking to improve," Bigley says. "We practice hard and we play hard."

The wins against Rice brought Dallas Baptist national validation. The Patriots won a neutral-site meeting in March on catcher Andrew Pirtle's walk-off home run in the 12th in a game in which they once trailed 5-1. They won again a month later, 3-2, at Rice.

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