February 14, 2014


Two Schools Ready to Make Impact at D-I Level

By Zach DiSchiano



The University of the Incarnate Word and Grand Canyon University are almost 1,000 miles apart from each other, but the two schools share common ground: Both baseball programs are entering their first year of Division I play in 2014.


Incarnate Word, located in San Antonio, and Grand Canyon, based in Phoenix, are well equipped to handle their first years against the NCAA’s premier talent behind the direction of coaches Danny Heep and Andy Stankiewicz (pictured above).


The two combined for 23 seasons of experience in Major League Baseball, and their time spent in the pros commands respect from their players.


“It’s awesome, just ‘cause you know everything he’s saying is the correct way to do things on a baseball field,” Grand Canyon first baseman Michael Pomeroy said of Stankiewicz. “Whether it’s hitting, whether it’s defensively, whether it’s pitching, you know that when he says something, you need to listen, and you need to soak it in.”


The MLB experience from their coaches provides a unique insight for the players. Jason Stone (right), a senior outfielder for Heep’s Cardinals, said his coach alludes to stories from his days in the big leagues to help relate to the players.


“He will tell a story every now and then about how he wasn’t the biggest, he wasn’t the strongest, he wasn’t the fastest,” Stone said. “Everyone kept doubting him, but he was really successful at the highest level. So it kind of inspires us.”


During his 12-year tenure in the majors, Heep (left) recorded 503 hits and 229 RBI on five different teams, winning two World Series with the New York Mets in 1986 and the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988. Since taking over as head coach for Incarnate Word in 1998 – and playing in Division II since 2000 – Heep has won 530 games and two conference championships.


But 2014 will be an entirely new challenge for the accomplished coach. Heep scheduled multiple series against power conference teams, including Oklahoma State to start the year, with games later in the season against Notre Dame, Gonzaga and Baylor.


“We’re going into every game like we’re going to win them all,” Heep said. “But we know what reality is, and we know this is a process. But our players are working hard.”


Colton Besett, Heep’s starting catcher, said he is aware of the challenges the team will face in its initial year at the Division I level.


“Every game we play this year, we’re pretty much going to be the underdogs,” he said. “No one is expecting us to win. When we go to play Oklahoma State, they’re going to look like the Yankees, except they’re going to be in orange and black. There’s going to be adrenaline running, for sure. We have nothing to lose.”


The challenge of adjusting to the next level of play starts off the field, in the messy world of recruiting. Stankiewicz (left), who played 429 games over seven Major League seasons, coached Single-A ball and assisted at Arizona State, said recruiting becomes easier in some ways but more difficult in others.


“It’s easier in a way that a lot of kids are calling us back now because we’re a Division I program,” he said. “The difficult part now is we’re competing against, in the state of Arizona, ASU [Arizona State] and U of A [Arizona], pretty good programs, obviously. That’s the tough part. You’re excited about Division I, but now you got to rub shoulders with the big boys.”


Establishing a presence amongst the nation’s top programs is exceedingly difficult, Heep said, mainly because kids grow up dreaming of playing for teams like Texas, Rice, Texas A&M and TCU. His coaching staff has to get creative in the way they recruit athletes because their facilities are not state of the art like those of surrounding schools, and the name recognition is not there.


Financial considerations also play an important factor in landing some of the more talented recruits, Heep said. Players who are not getting as much money to play for a big-name school will have the opportunity to pick up more financial aid at a small program like Incarnate Word.


“Some kids might not be getting a lot of scholarships at Texas or A&M or TCU,” he said. “They’re getting the minimum 25 percent, and Mom and Dad have to come up with 20 grand, and we’re offering these guys 75-80 percent, it puts a little thought in their process about where they want to go to school.”


Heep said the great thing about baseball is the overwhelming amount of talent up for grabs. Roster-size limits prevent the powerhouses from hoarding all the good players, which allows for smaller schools to sign talented players who may not be elite enough to make a 35-man team at a school like Texas or Texas A&M.


“You do not have to have the top-20 kids in the country to be a good team,” he said. “There’s a ton of kids out there that are capable of being good Division I players. You just have to do your homework, and you got to work at it. You got to go look.”


Jorge Perez, Grand Canyon’s ace pitcher, will face his fair share of top-20 level talent every Friday throughout the season. The shift in hitting ability from Division II to Division I, he said, is clearly noticeable.


“They have a little more power, more discipline at the plate,” Perez said. “So I just got to pitch smart and make sure I don’t give away any mistake pitches. Keep hitting your spots and you should be fine, they’re going to get themselves out.”


Both the Lopes and the Cardinals may be underdogs for nearly every game they play this season, but the players have embraced the challenge and are eager to play Division I opponents.


“We can’t wait to get on our plane ride for Friday’s first opener,” Pomeroy said. “We’re very excited to show D-1 what we’re made of.”


With Oklahoma State on the schedule first for Incarnate Word, some of the Cardinals players have reason to be intimidated. Heep said that is simply not the case.


“They better not be,” he said, with a laugh. “I’m not.”


(photos courtesy of GCU & UIW Media Relations)