With more than a foot of snow on the ground at the Patterson Baseball Complex, the Gonzaga baseball team is following the snowbirds and heading to Surprise, Arizona, for the third straight year for a four-game, season-opening series.
The Zags will take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers on Friday at 4 p.m. in the first game of the Sanderson Ford College Baseball Classic, No. 8 – and defending College World Series champions – Oregon State on Saturday, New Mexico on Sunday and a rematch with the Gophers on Monday.
“We expect to come right out of the gate ready to compete, regardless of our practice situation at this point,” Gonzaga assistant coach Brandon Harmon said. “There is no such thing as spring training in college baseball. These games right off the bat are going to be extremely important.”
The Bulldogs will play 13 games against 2018 NCAA Tournament teams, including games at Texas A&M and Southern Mississippi.
Another seven games are scheduled against Pac-12 foes Stanford, Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State.
GU’s first home game – which happens to be its first West Coast Conference game of the year – isn’t until March 14 against BYU.
The Bulldogs were picked to finish first in the WCC, earning five of the nine first-place votes (coaches can’t vote for their teams). Reigning regular-season champion Pepperdine was second and Saint Mary’s third. GU most recently won the conference in 2017, but captured the WCC Tournament last year, earning the automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
“It is a good honor for the club, obviously, and it puts the target on our back,” Harmon said. “I think this team expects to compete for a championship. It is something that we are ready to take on. It’s a good challenge.”
A familiar face will be on the mound on Friday for the Zags, junior Casey Legumina. He was the closer last season and racked up a school-record 13 saves, earning him a 35th-round draft selection by the Cleveland Indians.
“He is a guy who is up for the challenge to make that transition,” Harmon said. “He has premium stuff that is going to translate to being able to pitch in that role. Honestly, I think he would have been more than capable to do that last year as well, but he needed to fill a specific need for us, and he really flourished as the closer.”
The Chandler, Arizona, native appeared in 26 games and struck out 52 batters, with only seven walks. He will be expected to replace staff ace Daniel Bies, who was drafted in the seventh round by the New York Yankees.
The back end of the rotation will be filled by junior Mac Lardner and Spokane native Alek Jacob, a sophomore who pitched at North Central.
“He is backed up by two pretty darn good guys that maybe aren’t getting as much love on the national level as Casey is, but in our clubhouse, we know how good Mac Lardner and Alek Jacob are as well,” Harmon said. “Those two guys could slip right into that role easily as well, if we needed them to throw on Friday night.”
The closer role will be filled by junior college transfer Nick Trogrlic-Iverson, who passed up an MLB opportunity after being drafted in the 15th round by the Milwaukee Brewers. Trogrlic-Iverson, from Oakville, Ontario, spent his first two seasons at Central Arizona College.
Legumina was honored on the preseason All-WCC team as one of the top five pitchers in the conference, and redshirt sophomore Ernie Yake made the team as an infielder.
Yake, from Bellingham, led the Zags with a .322 batting average and .378 on-base percentage.
“We think Ernie is the best all-around player in the conference,” Harmon said. “Offensively, he will see a few more challenges this year, being the vocal point of the other teams’ attack. What he brings to the table at the top of our order and defensively on the left side of the infield, he is elite.”
The infielder will also look to continue his stellar defense. Last year, he committed just four errors in 136 chances, good for a .971 fielding percentage. As a team, GU was second in the country in fielding percentage.
Also returning for the Zags are catcher Austin Pinorini, outfielder Jace VanDeBrake and second baseman Carson Breshears.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.