Somewhere over the Rainbow Warriors, season No. 25 of baseball 2.0 at Abilene Christian University came to an end last weekend. There was no pot of gold awaiting the Wildcats after beating the University of Hawaii, 7-4; just a second straight victory and the first season-ending win since 1995 when the Internet itself was still 1.0.
That 1995 campaign also was the last time an ACU team won as few as 17 games, as this year’s did. The Wildcats’ fortunes flipped in 1996 – from a record of 17-36 to 41-18 – in part because new head coach Jimmy Shankle brought with him one of his former players at Lubbock Christian University, a spunky, young assistant named Britt Bonneau. There is ample evidence to suggest the future is bright now, too, and Bonneau – who took over from Shankle in 1997 and next year will celebrate his 20th season as head coach – is again in the middle of it all.
At first blush, this year’s ACU baseball team doesn’t appear to have made progress in its second season in Division I. In fact, the Wildcats won one fewer game than last year. But look a little more closely. In 2014, ACU won 18 total games, but six of those came against teams that are not D-I. All 55 games on this year’s schedule were against Division I opponents, meaning the 17 victories were actually a significant increase in the D-I win column.
Next, consider the caliber of competition. In 2014, ACU’s strength of schedule (SOS) ranking, according to college sports statistics website warrennolan.com, was 200th out of the 301 teams in Division I. In 2015, that number shot up to 114th. In other words, this year’s schedule was almost twice as tough as last year’s. (Incidentally, ACU’s SOS is the highest of any team in the Southland Conference.)
A team’s SOS is dependent largely on the conference in which it plays. For example, every team in the Southeastern Conference will naturally have high SOS rankings because there are so many good teams in that league. (To wit: six of the top 10 in SOS are SEC teams and no one from that league is ranked lower than 58th.)
But teams can, to some degree, control their non-conference schedule by playing tough opponents. And Bonneau did. The Wildcats’ non-conference SOS was the 18th toughest in all of Division I. Again, that number is the best among Southland Conference teams.
Another important point about SOS: in no way does it reflect how a team actually performs. For example, a team could have the toughest schedule in the nation but lose every one of those games by 15 runs. That team would perhaps earn respect for playing good opponents but also not be any good. ACU not only took on all comers in 2015 – 14 games against seven nationally ranked teams – the Wildcats frequently took them down to the wire.
The first of those close calls came March 3 against then-No. 5 Texas Tech University in Lubbock when ACU was edged at the tape of a 16-inning marathon, 6-5. A month later, the Wildcats lost three more one-run games in a 10-day stretch that was as remarkable as it was frustrating.
On Monday, April 6, Bonneau hornswaggled the Horned Frogs of TCU to come to Crutcher Scott Field. At the time, they were the No. 2 team in the nation. Think about that for a second. That would be like the Duke University men’s basketball team coming to Moody Coliseum or the University of Alabama football team showing up at Shotwell Stadium. In perhaps the most high-profile game ever played on campus, ACU took a 3-2 lead on TCU into the 7th before falling, 4-3.
Eight days later, “The Crutch” was packed again as Tech played ACU in Abilene for the first time since 1976. Down 7-5 in the bottom of the 9th, the Wildcats scored once and loaded the bases with the tying and winning runs before falling 7-6.
Less than 24 hours and 300 miles later, ACU got off the canvas to battle another heavyweight: the top-ranked team in all of college baseball that week, the Texas A&M University Aggies, in a game televised on the SEC Network. The Wildcats scored a run in the first and third innings; the Aggies answered with a run of their own in each frame. In the bottom of the 7th, A&M pushed a two-out run across and held on to win, 3-2.
Ten days. Three games against teams ranked (at the time) second, 19th and first in the nation. Three one-run losses. And these weren’t the juggernauts’ JVs. In each case, all three opponents put their regulars in the lineup and used their closers to finish off the games.
In these two seasons as a transitional Division I member, ACU teams have had plenty of big moments. Volleyball and women’s basketball each upset Texas Tech in 2013. In January of this year, men’s hoops upset one of the highest scoring teams in the nation then played its first ever nationally televised home game on CBS Sports Network. Football capped a run of three straight nail-biters against teams either from the major college ranks or a perennial playoff contender from ACU’s new level, the Football Championship Subdivision, with a win over frequent bowl participant Troy University.
But baseball’s stretch of one-run losses to three powerhouse teams in a span of 10 days may top the list. Especially when you remember some of the scores against these teams last year. The two losses to Tech in 2014? 6-2 and 19-2. A&M? 20-2. Those results, as ugly as they look on paper, are the rule when a first year D-I team takes on an established program with more scholarships and more of nearly everything else. How ACU played this year is for sure the exception.
The Wildcats made huge strides in conference play, too, more than doubling last year’s win total in the league: from a record of 6-18 and a 13th place finish in 2014 to 13-17 and 9th. The turnaround bodes well for 2018, ACU’s first year of postseason eligibility. The top eight teams in the standings qualify for the Southland tournament. Had the team been eligible this year, ACU would’ve finished just a single win against Texas A&M-Corpus Christi University shy of getting into the tournament. And who wound up winning? Houston Baptist University, the No. 7 seed. The same team ACU defeated two games to one in a series at HBU in April.
The final four games of the season last week in Arizona were a fitting end for a team that proved it could, if nothing else, take a punch. Tuesday night against No. 12 Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., the host Sun Devils jumped out to a 3-0 lead on a flurry of soft singles and added a run on a sacrifice fly in the 6th to go up 4-0. ACU got on the board in the 7th but fell, 4-1. Two nights later in Tucson in a battle of matching mascots, the University of Arizona’s Wildcats won, 9-0. ACU had two errors, a botched rundown and another handful of plays that could or should have been made but weren’t in a game coaches and some of us who have observed the team all year agreed was the ugliest loss of the season.
So what happened the next night? Only the most handsome win, a 2-1 cliffhanger that ended when sophomore third baseman Aaron Draper calmly smothered a hard grounder and threw to first to defeat the 2012 College World Series champions. In a gesture that speaks to his class and ACU’s resilience, Arizona’s legendary head coach Andy Lopez met Bonneau at home plate with his right hand extended and said, “Not many teams would have come back after last night the way you did. That’s a great win for your program.”
Lopez would know better than almost anyone. Like Bonneau, he has been the head coach at a Division II school, California State University, Dominguez Hills; and a Church of Christ-affiliated institution, Pepperdine University, which he led to the 1992 Division I national championship.
It was actually the second win in as many years against Arizona. But unlike last season’s, which was answered the next day by a 14-1 season-ending loss to those Wildcats, ACU followed this one up against a different opponent with a far different outcome. Against Hawaii – which finished .500 in the highly competitive Big West Conference and had come to Tucson to take on Arizona for a couple of weekend games – ACU got six strong innings from freshman starting pitcher Drew Hanson but fell behind the Rainbow Warriors, 4-2, heading to the bottom of the 7th, setting the stage for one final comeback. After an RBI groundout by Alex Copeland, centerfielder Colton Hall bounced a single into left to score senior slugger Tyler Eager to tie the game. Freshman catcher Mason Spracklen untied it with a single to center that scored Hall and put ACU in front, 5-4. A two-out howitzer of a homerun to center in the bottom of the 8th by sophomore Russell Crippen added a coveted pair of insurance runs, and the Wildcats bid aloha to the 2015 season with a 7-4 victory.
How many wins will this year’s progress produce in 2016? Probably not 41 as in 1996. Changing coaches is a little easier than changing NCAA classifications. But the transition period means Bonneau has four years to become an overnight success.
His and all ACU programs are now halfway through that period. Assuming the university remains on track and fulfills the necessary requirements to be approved as a full-fledged Division I member, this year’s freshmen will be seniors in 2018 when the Wildcats are finally eligible to go to the playoffs. That means the next time Hanson takes that same mound in Tucson, it could be in an NCAA Super Regional game. And the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow might just be a ticket to the College World Series.