PHOENIX – In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Boise State University’s baseball program was cut off from spending and disbanded despite being the only NCAA Division I baseball program in the state.
Grand Canyon University senior pitcher Hunter Omlid, a freshman for the Broncos at the time, was forced to find a new place to play baseball. Not to mention, his search took place in the middle of a global pandemic.
“It changed a lot of people’s lives,” Omlid said. “Transferring to another Division I school wasn’t ideal, especially late in the summer when they did cut the program, scholarships just weren’t as available.”
Omlid couldn’t find another Div. I program that suited him and decided to take his talents to Central Arizona College, a junior college in Coolidge, for the 2021 season. Central Arizona is known as one of the best JUCO baseball schools in the country, winning two out of the last three national championships in the NJCAA Div. I Baseball World Series.
However, Omlid wasn’t the only transfer looking for another opportunity at Central Arizona. GCU junior pitcher Tyson Heaton was on his way to Coolidge from BYU, looking for a change of scenery after one year with the Cougars.
“I just didn’t have the best fit at BYU,” Heaton said. “I’d heard about Central through the grapevine and only heard good things about it so I decided to reach out and see if that would maybe be a good opportunity and a good place to play.”
For Heaton and Omlid, it was everything they wanted.
“Central is a great place,” Omlid said. “You focus a lot on baseball. Every single day is a long day. My time there reestablished my love for the game.”
Anthony Gilich has spent 15 years at Central Arizona and eight as the head coach of the esteemed JUCO program. Gillich’s top priority has always been to establish relationships with his athletes and turn them into better baseball players.
Gilich expressed his love for coaching at the JUCO level, saying the opportunity to work with the players is greater at the junior college level because they don’t have as much compliance and as many rules structuring things such as the number of practice hours.
Also, the ACCAC, the conference Central Arizona plays in, only allows wood bats, unlike many Div. I programs where most of the players use metal bats to hit the ball farther and have a higher batting average.
When Gilich recruited Heaton and Omlid, he knew that all they needed was a reset.
“For guys that transfer from a four-year school to us, it doesn’t always mean they’re not good players,” Gilich said. “For most here, it just didn’t work out at the other schools, whether it’s just a personality match, or maybe just for whatever reason it didn’t work, and they just need to get kind of a fresh start. And so out of those guys, as they bounce back and do well, it gives them a little bit of some runway to get going to the next spot.”
Omlid and Heaton were both exceedingly successful at Central Arizona. Omlid earned All-American honors and led the Vaqueros to a national championship appearance. He went 13-1 with a 3.31 ERA in 89 2/3 innings pitched. A year later, Heaton had a career year of his own, winning the NJCAA World Series and pitching 93 innings with a 9-2 record and a 4.07 ERA.
Omlid’s lone 2021 season caught the attention of GCU, a Div. I baseball program. Soon after, he decided to transfer to get back to playing at the highest level of college baseball.
“Staying in Arizona is what I really wanted to do,” Omlid said. “Arizona is an awesome place for baseball. I mean it’s kind of a hotspot, especially on the West Coast for just exposure and development.”
Heaton followed suit a year later, joining the Lopes for the 2023 season. While both players spent only one season as a Vaquero, they say that season helped shape their future.
“I loved my time there,” Heaton said. “It was a place where I was able to find myself, and develop into a better pitcher and a better player. So it was fun. And then to have the opportunity to come here and continue playing was great.”
Gilich holds no hard feelings towards the two current teammates at GCU, saying he wants no players to end their career at Central Arizona and sees part of his job as helping players “springboard” to the next step.
Heaton is getting ready for his debut this season as a Lope, while Omlid prepares for his final year of college baseball. In his junior season, he pitched 24.1 innings for the Lopes and had a 3.70 ERA.
The Lopes open their season Friday in MLB’s Desert Invitational, taking on UC San Diego at home, followed with a game Saturday against Tennessee, ranked No. 2 in preseason polls. GCU has again been picked to finish atop the WAC after winning four of the last five WAC regular season titles.
Both players are now in the final stretch of their unconventional collegiate journey.
“Both of them like to work extremely hard,” Gilich said. They both had great success here, pitched really well, and were a big part of the team’s success. I expect that to be the same at GCU.”