As the Texas Longhorns sat in their locker room on Monday waiting to hear their NCAA Tournament destination, head coach David Pierce already had an idea of where they were heading. The team, however, was in the dark on their destination, expecting to go to one of Fayetteville, Ark., Houston, or Baton Rouge.
When Texas appeared as the second seed in the Long Beach regional, the team paused and turned and looked at each other. Then came another surprise; they were matched up with a UCLA Bruins team they swept earlier in the season. After the initial shock of who and where they were playing wore off, the team broke into cheers to celebrate their record 58th NCAA tournament appearance.
Texas entered the Big 12 Tournament as a team likely to make it in, but still not completely guaranteed a spot. Reaching the tournament finals and falling just short against the Oklahoma State Cowboys removed any doubt the Horns had of making the tournament.
“I really felt like we needed to play well to avoid being a three or a potential bubble when you look at the regional picks,” Pierce said. “For us to position ourselves in a two says a lot about our approach and how well we played over the week. The unfortunate thing is we just didn’t finish that game. I will say this; it was a great environment for postseason play. When you look at the championship game, it was like playing a Super Regional game three on the road. That gave us some great experience because I have so many players on this team that haven’t been there.”
As Pierce’s team travels to Los Angeles, they go as the only team in their regional not from the Golden State. The Long Beach State 49ers host the San Diego State Aztecs on the other side of the regional, while Texas is matched up with a team they beat in Austin three times earlier in the season.
“It helps in your preparation,” Pierce said about playing the Bruins once again. “Their Friday night guy, (Griffin) Canning, is one of the best in the country and we beat him here, but he’s got great stuff. When you look at the four teams, we could very arguably be the four best defensive teams in the country playing in this region. I’m not real sure on San Diego State’s pitching, but the other three teams have really great numbers on the pitching side. The premium is pitching and defense and Blair Field is a pitcher-friendly park. There’s a lot of things that play in our favor.”
Canning is projected to be a first-round pick after amassing a 7-3 record and a 2.34 ERA in 16 starts. When the Bruins visited Austin in March, the Longhorns were able to put three earned runs on six hits on UCLA’s ace, including home runs from junior Patrick Mathis and senior Kacy Clemens.
“Canning is a big, power arm,” Clemens said. “You’re going to see fastballs into the mid-nineties. Definitely a live arm and a good curveball. Hopefully we can attack the fastball. He’s going to be tough. He’s going to be a high draft pick so we know what we’ve got our hands full with. Hopefully we can get after him.”
When asked about the other two teams in the regional, Pierce made sure to note their defensive acumen.
“Long Beach has been solid all year,” Pierce said. “They really have pitched and played great defense all year with a great schedule. They positioned themselves to be in this regional host. Also, they were really close to being a national seed. They have a great history and they’ve played well this year. San Diego State, I know they’ve played defense well the entire year and they have a good history as well. I just think it’s going to be four teams that are going to get after it. Hopefully we play well when we’re at the regional.”
Texas (37-22) played very well toward the end of the season, winning seven of nine, including three of five games in the Big 12 Tournament. Though the team would appear to have an upward trajectory, Pierce claims the recent stretch of games is the team playing close to the same high level they have all year.
“I think we’ve been one of the most consistent teams in the country all year when you look at our pitching and defense and some young players playing on the left side of the infield in premium defensive positions and how they played,” Pierce said. “I do think we’re swinging the bat and having a better approach than we have all year.”
After missing out completely on the NCAA Tournament last year, almost unheard of for the Longhorn baseball program, and the resignation of legendary head coach Augie Garrido, Pierce knew he would have to win over the players to his staff. Results like reaching the NCAA Tournament do just that.
Pierce said he could tell the team wanted to return to where they expected Texas to be, and after this season, the future is looking bright.
“This is a great start for us as a new staff,” Pierce said. “I think our kids are very excited to compete in the regional. I just think it just starts a new era for us to start building that consistency that we’re looking for.”
Pierce said that sophomore Nolan Kingham will get the start on Friday against UCLA. In addition, he plans to use senior Zane Gurwitz this weekend. Gurwitz has been battling a hamstring issue for much of the season, but with not much season left, it’s all hands on deck for Texas.
“If he snaps his leg moving forward, I don’t care, he’s playing,” Pierce said jokingly. “What is he going to hold it back for? He can go sit behind a desk now with a pulled hamstring.”
First pitch on Friday from Blair Field is at 6 p.m. Central on ESPN2.