GCU upset of Tennessee marks another milestone in rapid ascension of Lopes baseball

The Grand Canyon University band and cheerleaders take the field before GCU baseball’s home opener against Tennessee last Saturday. (Photo by Nicholas Hodell/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – In the bottom of the seventh inning at Brazell Field, Grand Canyon caught its most important break against No. 2 Tennessee at the MLB Desert Invitational.

A throwing error from Tennessee shortstop Austen Jaslove on a routine ground ball gave GCU sophomore first baseman Eli Paton the opportunity to score from third and give the Lopes a 4-3 lead, one they would not give up.

A crowd of over 4,400 people, fourth-highest in Brazell Field history, along with observers straining to see the action from various levels of a parking structure beyond the right field wall, jumped to their feet and let out a thunderous roar.

The atmosphere during that game-winning moment and every key moment that came before it, including a three-inning close-out from last season’s WAC Pitcher of the Year Daniel Avitia, exemplified everything the GCU baseball program has achieved since jumping to Division I for a second time in 2014.

This time, though, it was on the biggest stage and against the best opponent in Brazell Field history.

“This was a little bit different because we’re playing the University of Tennessee,” GCU coach Gregg Wallis said of the Volunteers, who came into the tournament last weekend ranked second nationally. “Everyone in the community knows how good they are. I think it’s our fan base and then playing a great opponent at home. This one was special.”

Saturday’s monumental upset win over the SEC powerhouse came during GCU’s first nationally televised home game as part of the MLB Desert Invitational. It was a fitting occasion and a fine result for a program in the middle of an extended golden era.

The Lopes have become the dominant force in the Western Athletic Conference, winning over 73% of their conference games since 2014, beating out Sacramento State by over 10 percentage points for the best in the conference. GCU’s 111-30 WAC record since 2017 is the best conference record in the country over the last five full seasons.

GCU’s first two NCAA tournament appearances have come in the past two seasons. The Lopes won the WAC Tournament championship in 2021 and earned their first at-large bid last year thanks to a 41-21 record, their best Div. I mark.

GCU has earned at least seven All-WAC selections over the past two seasons.

Avitia, a sophomore right-hander who normally starts games for the Lopes, and junior infielder Jacob Wilson, showcase how GCU, a relatively smaller school, has found rare success, with the Lopes predicted to win the WAC title in the preseason coaches’ poll for the sixth straight season.

Fans file into their seats before Grand Canyon's baseball game against Tennessee at Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark. Over 4,400 fans attended the game, the fourth-highest attendance in the facility's history. (Photo by Nicholas Hodell/Cronkite News)

Fans file into their seats before Grand Canyon’s baseball game against Tennessee at Brazell Field at GCU Ballpark. Over 4,400 fans attended the game, the fourth-highest attendance in the facility’s history. (Photo by Nicholas Hodell/Cronkite News)

Wilson enters his junior year coming off two straight All-WAC First Team selections. He improved significantly for the Lopes in 2022 with a .358 batting average, 12 home runs and 65 RBIs.

He also played well in a short stint with the Orleans Firebirds in the Cape Cod League before playing on the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.

Though his future beyond his GCU days is bright as a top-10 draft prospect, he has his sights locked in on the present.

“All the publications are super cool (and) to be able to see my name and see a couple of other guys’ names on there,” Wilson said. “At the end of the day, I just want to come out here, (and) I want to win.”

Avitia, a sophomore who came to GCU last season after being selected in the 19th round of the 2021 MLB draft by the Chicago Cubs, impressed during his freshman year with a 4.06 ERA and 111 strikeouts. He earned a spot on a freshman All-American team from two different outlets.

Both players represent the quality of talent Wallis brought into the program during his last six years serving as GCU’s recruiting coordinator in addition to being the Lopes’ assistant coach for the last nine years.

The program’s recruiting classes have been considered by select outlets to be among the best in the “mid-major” level for the last three seasons.

Wallis said moments like Saturday turned recruiting pitches into reality.

“This is what we told these guys that we’ve been recruiting as long as five or six years ago that are still in the program that we felt like we have the facilities. We have the administrative support,” he said. “We have a great recruiting base. We can compete with anybody and I think we showed that (Saturday).”

He took the GCU head coaching role in July after former coach Andy Stankiewicz took the head coaching job at USC. Avitia said hiring Wallis, known as “Wally” among fellow coaches and players, from within the program was a fantastic decision.

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“Everyone loves Wally,” he said. “He’s probably the best decision they could have made because he’s best for the program. He has great connections and just did what he did.”

The familiarity of the program’s new head coach helps keep the team’s morale as high as ever.

In at least one case, the decision to hire from within the program kept an important player in a GCU uniform for the 2023 season.

“Honestly, if Wally didn’t get hired, I don’t think I would have stayed,” Avitia said. “I think I would have probably went somewhere else because I had a great connection with Wally.”

Wallis said he and Stankiewicz worked very well together on offense, but now he is the final man in charge of pitching decisions as head coach.

He credits his assistant coaches – which includes Jack Wilson, a 12-year MLB veteran and father of Jacob Wilson – for guidance in making tough decisions.

“I’m just fortunate that I have a great coaching staff to lean on because these are group decisions in there,” Wallis said. “I make the final call, but they’re group decisions. We talk it through and see what we think our best shot is.”

Despite losses against Michigan State and Michigan to close out the MLB Desert Invitational, the Lopes found their potential in a special on-campus atmosphere against the Volunteers that can fuel them for the rest of the season, one that features a non-conference schedule that includes five more NCAA tournament teams from last year.

“Now that we know what we’re capable of, I know that whoever we play in the country, we’re going to be ready,” Wilson said. “We just proved to ourselves (Saturday) what we can do against a top-five team. Whoever we come up against for the next four or five months, I’m not too worried about it. I’m really excited to go out there and play those teams.”

Avitia was even more enthused, showcasing the team’s readiness to prove itself to a wider audience.

“People are underestimating us,” Avitia said. “People are thinking, ‘Oh, they’re a WAC team. They’re not good.’ No. We’re ready for anyone. Bring us any ACC, SEC (team), anyone. We’re ready for you all.”

Nicholas Hodell Nick-o-lus ho-DELL (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Nicholas Hodell expects to graduate in May 2023 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in community sports management. Hodell has interned with 98.7 Arizona Sports and contributes to Inferno Intel.