Tom Murphy is a sports reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. He was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Broncos ride hot streak to Fayetteville
Skylar Hales (20) of Santa Clara pitches during an NCAA baseball game against Stanford on Tuesday, March 7, 2023 in Stanford, Calif. (AP Photo/Lachlan Cunningham)
FAYETTEVILLE — Santa Clara entered the West Coast Conference Tournament last week needing to hoist a championship trophy to make its first NCAA Tournament since 1997.
Considering the Broncos had been 0-2 in WCC Tournament play since the resumption of the event in 2013, that seemed like a tall order.
The event started for the Broncos with a do-or-die 4-2 win over Gonzaga in the single-elimination round Wednesday, the first WCC Tournament victory in program history.
Three games later, after blasting Portland and Saint Mary’s by a combined score of 32-6, Santa Clara left the field at Las Vegas Ballpark with a 6-0 shutout of Portland and a long-awaited NCAA Tournament bid.
The Broncos (35-18), led by sixth-year Coach Rusty Filter, earned the No. 4 seed at the NCAA Fayetteville Regional on Monday, where they will join host and top seed Arkansas, TCU and Arizona. They will enter their first NCAA postseason in 26 years at 2 p.m. Friday against the No. 3 Razorbacks.
Santa Clara is one of the hottest teams in the nation, having won its past eight games, all against WCC competition, and 17 of its past 20. The only losses in that span were 20-17 against Stanford, the No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and back-to-back losses at Portland on May 12-13.
The Broncos are slotted at No. 81 in the NCAA’s RPI rankings, higher than No. 90 Lipscomb and No. 91 Army, which both made the tournament bracket and also played Arkansas this season.
Filter, a standout pitcher and catcher at San Diego State, earned his coaching chops as a long-time assistant and pitching coach with his alma mater (1994-2009) and at Stanford (2010-17) under Mark Marquess.
Filter is also the answer to this trivia question: Who is the only college baseball coach to have two of his pitchers selected No. 1 overall in the MLB Draft?
While Filter was pitching coach at San Diego State, right-hander Stephen Strasburg was the first pick of the 2009 draft by the Washington Nationals. Four years later, Stanford right-hander Mark Appel was the first pick of the 2013 draft by the Houston Astros.
Appropriately, the Broncos have one of the better pitching staffs in the country, ranking 10th in WHIP (1.31), 32nd in team earned-run average (4.42) and 27th in hits allowed per 9 innings (8.21).
Right-handers Skylar Hales (6-4, 2.81 ERA) and Blake Hammond (6-1, 2.35) both earned All-WCC honors, while righty August Souza (1-2, 1.69, 5 saves) was an honorable mention selection.
According to D1Baseball, Hales is one of seven Division I pitchers who have hit 100 mph on a radar gun this season. That outlet has ranked Hales, a junior, as the No. 85 college prospect for the upcoming draft.
Hales and Hammond have a team-high 64 strikeouts, with Hales notching his in 51 1/3 innings and Hammonds doing it in 46 innings.
The Broncos are also a solid hitting team, ranking 43rd in the country with a .300 team batting average and 41st in on-base percentage (.403).
Second baseman Dawson Brigman (.317, 6 home runs, 32 RBI) earned WCC Tournament Most Outstanding Player honors to lead a contingent of four Broncos on the all-tournament team. Also on the all-tourney team were his brother, center fielder Coleman Brigman (.303, 12, 49), first baseman Efrain Manzo (.318, 17, 54) and pitcher Brandon Gomez (6-3, 3.50), who threw eight shutout innings in the title game.
Several other Santa Clara regulars are hitting .300 or better: designated hitter Eamonn Lance (.329, 6, 18), infielder Robert Hipwell (.329, 14, 39), catcher Johnny Luetzow (.327, 7 RBI), outfielder JonJon Berring (.326, 1, 24) and outfielder Michael O’Hara (.323, 3, 37).
Arkansas Coach Dave Van Horn said late Monday morning he knew very little of the Broncos and that he and his staff were about to begin a deep scouting dive on them.
“They won,” Van Horn said, regarding Santa Clara’s run to the WCC Tournament championship. “They’re from the northern part of California. I know that they’re a champion. They won something.”
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