OREM, Utah — One of the longest winning streaks in college baseball history ended in dramatic fashion with Utah Valley University’s ninth-inning rally cut short by in-state rival Utah.
The bigger question now is whether Utah Valley’s dreams of representing the unheralded Great West Conference in the NCAA tournament were dashed as well in the emotional 11-10 loss Tuesday.
“If it’s one loss that keeps us out, I would be real disappointed in the system for sure because our guys have earned the opportunity to find a way to be in those regionals,” said coach Eric Madsen, whose Wolverines (39-12 overall, 24-0 GWC) are on the verge of their second 40-win season in three years.
Madsen’s team had won 32 straight this year, including a 5-4 victory April 4 over then-No. 4 Arizona, a 4-1 win at Utah on April 10 and a wild 14-11 win May 1 over Brigham Young.
The problem is the other victories were mostly against teams with Institute of Technology in their names (New York and New Jersey) and other Great West programs such as Chicago State, North Dakota and Texas-Pan American.
That adds up to a conference with a bad RPI, a big factor when the 64-team NCAA field is chosen May 28.
“They’ve had an unbelievable year,” said Utah coach Bill Kinneberg, whose team needed three home runs, 18 hits and several diving catches to escape Tuesday. “Hopefully, this one doesn’t diminish their chances.”
Two years ago, Utah Valley finished with 42 wins but didn’t reach the postseason.
“We were so far away from somebody voting for us, it was unbelievable,” Madsen said. “But we said that that year would probably put us on people’s radar. If we did it again, there’d be a better opportunity.”
For 32 consecutive games, the Wolverines found a way, mostly with homegrown talent, trust in each other and a will to win much bigger than the reputation of their conference.
After the hard-fought win against Arizona, they needed 10 innings to beat North Dakota.
Then against Houston Baptist on May 6, they turned a 3-1, eighth-inning deficit into an 8-6 win, with Willie Pratt’s bases-clearing double capping a five-run inning.
“The Houston heat was killing us, that humidity … we were definitely out of our element and they played us great,” said Jeremy Gendlek, the reigning Great West pitcher of the year. “But we do what we always do and found way to win.”
Tuesday night seemed no different for the school that sits in the shadow of BYU — just five miles down the road in Provo.
But the Wolverines looked nervous, and allowed Utah to load the bases the first two innings. Still, they trailed only 1-0 after inning-ending strikeouts by pitcher Adam Gunn.
Utah Valley then took command 7-1, Pratt’s two-run double in the second starting things and his RBI single in the third giving the Wolverines a nice cushion.
Utah regained the lead in the sixth then added three more runs in the top of the ninth for an 11-7 advantage.
Utah even brought in all-time saves leader Tyler Wagner.
The Wolverines and a crowd of 4,739 still believed.
Jake Rickenbach, a year removed from a devastating arm injury, lined a one-out single to right-center. Billy Burgess delivered a two-out single and Austin Heaps was called safe at first on a bobbled grounder.
That set the stage for a guy named Goose — whose Army dad nicknamed him after one of the most clutch players in Major League Baseball, Hall of Famer Goose Gossage.
Goose Kallunki delivered a hard single to left scoring two, then Kai Hatch followed with a double to left to get Utah Valley within one, with runners at second and third.
A single likely would win it and keep the streak alive.
Catcher Alex Exon, whose bases-loaded play at the plate in the eighth allowed the Wolverines to escape another jam, instead went down swinging.
“We put some stuff together; we just didn’t put enough together,” said a dejected Kallunki.
Madsen was encouraged nonetheless.
“Our guys just don’t quit,” he said. “I’m really more shocked that we didn’t end up scoring.”
Just last week, Utah Valley earned its first-ever Collegiate Baseball ranking, debuting at No. 27. This week, the Wolverines entered the National College Baseball Writers Association poll for the first time in school history at No. 30.
Madsen, in his fourth year as head coach but ninth overall, said the climb up has mirrored that of the university itself.
“Nine years ago we were a junior college,” Madsen said. “We made a big jump in a short period of time. That’s what this team has been able to do. They’ve overcome so many obstacles and found a way to have an amazing season.”