There was a point in the season where the UCSB baseball team seemed headed for a mediocre campaign in Andrew Checketts’ second year at the helm. The Gauchos were 14-13 and had lost six of their last 10, including a 7-0 defeat at Cal Poly and a 3-1 home loss against Pepperdine.
The Gauchos turned things around soon after that unpleasant setback to the Waves on April 2. They went 20-10 in their remaining games of the regular season, including 11-4 in May, and finished second in the Big West.
The strong finish was rewarded with an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, the program’s first postseason appearance since 2001.
UCSB showed it belonged in the tournament as it beat SEC school Texas A&M in the regional opener in Corvallis, Ore. The Gauchos dropped a pair gut-wrenching one-run games to Pac-12 champ and host Oregon State and A&M to end the season with a respectable 35-25 record.
For the job he did with the Gaucho baseball team, Presidio Sports is pleased to name Checketts as the Santa Barbara Sports Figure of the Month.
Checketts, who had been a well-regarded assistant coach at Oregon before taking the job at UCSB, called it “extremely gratifying” to make the NCAA tournament in his second year as a head coach. He was impressed how the team stepped up and played good baseball down the stretch.
“There were some points in the season when our chances for a postseason berth looked pretty slim,” he said. “We played with our backs against the wall the last month of the season and performed well under pressure. Having the (selection) committee recognize the team’s accomplishment was rewarding.”
And the Gauchos did it with a young squad — only two seniors. Freshmen pitchers like Robby Nesovic, Justin Jacome and Dylan Hecht were huge during the last month of the season, freshman Ryan Clark and sophomores Tyler Kuresa, Woody Woodward and Luke Swenson were clutch in the field and at the plate.
“We thought we had a shot with the talent we had coming in, but knew we would have our work cut out for ourselves,” Checketts said about the beginning-of-the-season goal of making the tournament. “Early on, we were a bunch of good individual players, but not a good team. We overcame a lot of potential excuses with injuries, inexperience and youth and became a very good team.”
The development of the freshmen played a key part in the team’s success.
“I don’t think we were surprised,” Checketts said of how the first-year players performed down the stretch. “They are a talented group of freshmen that have high ceilings. Sometimes the freshmen take a year to settle in and feel like they belong. This group settled in a little earlier than some of the other groups I have coached.”
The Gauchos entered the NCAA Tournament confident and went out and beat Texas A&M in the opener, 6-4.
“I’ve coached on teams that were so busy celebrating and reading their press clippings that they forgot that they had a chance to win a tournament,” Checketts said. “We went up there with the mindset that until they sent us home we had a chance to win the regional. The win on Friday against Texas A&M helped validate the message that we had an opportunity not to only be there but to win.
“We were very close in both of our losses and played good competitive baseball all weekend. Our staff was pleased with our guys’ effort.”
The future looks bright for UCSB baseball. The Gauchos lose only two seniors and potentially two underclassmen in the major league baseball First Year Player Draft. [2013 Draft Results Here – Brandon Twinkwon selected No. 214 by Los Angeles Dodgers; UCSB commit Tyler Mahle taken No. 225 by Cincinnati Reds]
“If we can hold on to most of our recruits after the draft and our players make another jump physically, next year should be an exciting year,” said Checketts.
He added that making the NCAA Tournament should boost recruiting.
“There aren’t a lot of excuses as to why a baseball player wouldn’t want to attend UCSB — great academics, great weather, great location and a big-time baseball conference,” Checketts said. “The two objections that we ran into the most in the past were how long it would take to be competitive and make the playoffs and our facility. Making the playoffs helps us cross one of those objections off the list.”
Checketts feels the program is moving in the right direction.
“There are a only a few programs on the West Coast that make the tournament every year. We’ve got to keep working and improving all aspects of our program if we want to be one of those.”
SANTA BARBARA SPORTS FIGURE OF THE MONTH
Each Month, Presidio Sports recognizes a local sports figure for their extraordinary contribution to the Santa Barbara athletic community.It is our way to recognize those who are making a lasting impact in our sports community, whether it is an outstanding athletic performance, a lifetime achievement award, or perhaps a great example of leadership.