July 9, 2014

Consistency Down Homestretch in 2014 Leads Broncos to First WCC Winning Record under Dan O’Brien

2014 Santa Clara Baseball Season in Review

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In its third season under head coach Dan O'Brien, Santa Clara baseball took a major step forward with a top-four finish in West Coast Conference regular season play and an appearance in the WCC Baseball Championship. The team, defined by toughness and resilience, won seven of its nine WCC series for a total of 16 conference wins — the most for the program since 2004.

"They're winners," O'Brien said of the 2014 players. "They truly cared about one another, they had great senior leadership, they were relentless, they were incredibly resilient, and they ultimately will be remembered as the team that put Bronco baseball back on the map."

The Broncos played 13 games against six different teams that qualified for the 2014 NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament: Arizona State, regional host Cal Poly, Pepperdine, San Diego State, Stanford and Washington. Pepperdine and Stanford played in three-game sets of their respective super regionals, and Stanford was eliminated by the eventual national champion Vanderbilt Commodores.

A pair of standout sophomores in Jose Vizcaino, Jr. and Reece Karalus received First Team All-WCC honors. Freshman Stevie Berman received All-Freshman Team honors as well as All-WCC Honorable Mention accolades. Senior Quinton Perry collected WCC Honorable Mention honors along with a spot on the WCC Baseball Championship All-Tournament Team. Senior Casey Munoz and sophomore Jacob Steffens each received a conference honorable mention.

Following a 2-1 series loss at Gonzaga April 11-13, the team faced an important crossroads as it traveled to Fowler Park for a matchup with perennial conference powerhouse San Diego. The Broncos sat at 5-7 and were tied for fifth place in the conference standings ahead of a matchup with the second-place Toreros, who came into the series with an 11-4 conference mark. Santa Clara went on to complete a historic sweep, winning three games over Easter weekend to match its win total against the Toreros from the previous 10 seasons (3-27).

"For the first time all year the guys played as a team in San Diego, and they did it all weekend," O'Brien said. "They pitched, defended, ran the bases well and really battled at the plate. It was a true team effort, and it ultimately led to belief. After that weekend they truly believed they could be a postseason ballclub." 

Those three victories started a streak of five straight WCC series wins — and the Broncos would need every one of those victories for a postseason berth. Entering the final weekend series May 16-18 against Saint Mary's, the Broncos stood two wins away from qualifying for the WCC Baseball Championship.

Sunday, May 18 marked both the last game of the regular season and Senior Day for 10 Bronco baseball players. Santa Clara rallied from a 5-1 fourth-inning deficit to enter the ninth in a 6-6 tie with the Gaels. With two outs and runners on first and second, junior T.J. Braff lined a base hit to left field, scoring senior Greg Harisis to put the Broncos in the postseason for the first time since 1997.

"The final day of the regular season was truly special, and really defined this ballclub and Bronco baseball," O'Brien said. "To have yet another no-quit, come from behind win was typical of these guys. And then a two-out, walkoff win on senior day to earn a postseason bid — that's as good as it gets. 

"So many people, both in and out of uniform, contributed to our successful season and were such a big part of that celebration. That win was for all of our Bronco baseball family, and just the start of something very special in this program."

At the WCC Baseball Championship, the Broncos faced the only two teams that bested them in a regular season conference series with matchups against Pepperdine in the opener and Gonzaga on day two. Despite holding leads of two runs early in both games, Santa Clara was beaten by the Waves and Bulldogs.

Vizcaino, Jr.  led the team in batting average (.323), hits (65), stolen bases (11) and RBIs (28). Berman finished in the top three of most major offensive categories, including 30 walks for a team-best .443 on-base percentage. In the leadoff spot, Harisis scored 49 runs and led the team with 94 total bases.

"Down the stretch, our offense competed from the top of the lineup to the bottom, and deep into every at-bat as well. We rarely threw away at-bats, and were especially tough with two strikes," O'Brien said. "That led to guys coming up with runners in scoring position for what felt like the entire playoff run. It was a different guy stepping up each game and as a group they truly were relentless."

On the mound, opening night and Friday night starter D.J. Zapata led the Broncos with 98.2 innings pitched, 50 strikeouts and two complete games in his senior campaign. Karalus notched 11 saves, the second-most in Bronco baseball single season history only to Anthony Rea's 13 in 2004. The sophomore also led the team with 34 appearances, six wins (tied with sophomore Peter Hendron), a 2.25 ERA and a .206 opposing batting average.

"Reece is a true competitor and a winner. You can't ask for anything more out of your closer," O'Brien said. "I'm so proud of what he accomplished this season, especially considering that the closer role was new to him. To do what he did with very little closer experience says everything you need to know about Reece. We don't make that playoff run without him."

Although the Broncos didn't have their moment in Stockton, they lived out a once-in-a-lifetime sort of day at Schott Stadium in the regular season finale with a dogpile, hugs for friends and family and the chance for 10 seniors to celebrate their dedication to the program with a new wave of Santa Clara baseball players. That moment will take its place in the top shelf with great sports memories and triumphs for the ballplayers moving on from and returning to next year's team.