Thursday Thoughts - Ladies and Gentlemen, the Dallas Baptist Patriots

Last week when the boys over at CBS College Sports Tonight had me on and asked me to give my top five Coach of the Year candidates, I quickly put together my list. The first four are pretty expected names: Perno, Gillespie, Maineiri and Childress. But the fifth name isn't. Even studio host Adam Zucker commented, "Eric, you've really dug deep for this one: Daniel Heefner of Dallas Baptist."

Yep, let's give it up for the first year coach of an independent that has his team currently at 35-17 and No. 37 in the RPI. In other words, the Patriots are on the verge of doing what hasn't been done since 1992; they're very close to becoming the first Independent team (not named Miami) to make the NCAA tournament.

DBU-CoachHeefner.jpg
(Coach Heefner has everything going his way, except the national publicity)

So I did what I could in these $4-dollar per gallon gas price days to make my way up to San Francisco today to do an actual face-to-face with what could be the most under-appreciated coach in the country.

After he threw batting practice to his team at USF's Benedetti Diamond (just for the record, he didn't strike out a single player... but I digress), Heefner walked over and we got things underway.

Me:
Hi coach, I'm Eric Sorenson from CSTV.com.

Coach Heefner:
Hi. Good to see you. Thanks for coming out.

Me:
No prob. Let me start with an obvious, dumb question, I'm guessing you like your team so far this year, right?

Coach Heefner:
Oh, they've been great all year. Obviously from winning all those big games and from an offensive standpoint... (he interrupts himself) it's just been a really balanced team to tell you the truth. As a coach you really gotta like that when you can play solid defense and get a great bullpen and the pitching has been good. It's just a great group of guys. The chemistry of our team has been really unbelievable. They stick together. It's truly a team-first mentality.

Me:
I'm guessing that their work ethic is good too?

Coach Heefner:
Oh yeah, they've been unbelievable. And that's half the battle right there.

Me:
Talk a little bit about making the transition from assistant coach to head coach. What's that been like? Harder/easier than you expected?

Coach Heefner:
It's actually just been "different." I think what helped was that I'd been here at DBU the previous three years as an assistant. And being the recruiting coordinator has been important because I've had a hand in getting the kids that we have. So that's made a big difference, not just myself being here the last three years, but one of our assistants, Nate Frieling, has also been here the last three years. So the players and coaches were all familiar with each other, so it wasn't a huge adjustment for everybody. Obviously, there are some changes, but not really big ones.

Me:
I was curious about the team itself, you guys went 30-26 last year but what are the main things that have made this team play so much better this year? Or is it just a year's experience?

Coach Heefner:
Yeah, it's been experience for sure. But I think the biggest difference has been our pitching. Especially our bullpen. Our bullpen has been outstanding this year.
We've got two guys back there that, if we get to the 6th-7th inning with a lead, we feel real confident we're going to win the game. I think that's been one of the biggest turnarounds for us is the pitching staff.

DBU-Bagley.jpg
(Saves specialist Tyson Bagley earned his 11th save today)

Me:
You guys are in a pretty good position right now at No. 37 in the RPI. Have you talked to your team about the post-season at all? Has that crept up into the conversation?

Coach Heefner:
You know, for the majority of the year we haven't had that as a focus for our team. Our focus has always been one-game-at-a-time and on the moment. But you know, in the last couple weeks we have talked about it a little bit. You know, one of the hard things is... we don't really know what it's going to take. I mean, is it the RPI they're going to consider? Is it your record? Your record down the stretch? They talk a lot about conference finish and obviously we don't have that. So yeah, we do talk about it, but only in terms of what we think we have to do in terms of getting that opportunity. But we don't know for sure, so we talk more about going out and playing well.

Me:
Do you have any kind of bead on how much being an independent hurts your chances for an NCAA bid?

Coach Heefner:
That's really hard to say, because it's been, what?... I don't remember how many years it's been since an independent has gotten a bid.

Me:
Since 1992 for teams... (he says it with me)

Coach Heefner:
... other than Miami (laughs)

Me:
Yeah, it was Cal State Northridge in 1992 to be exact.

Coach Heefner:
Sure. So actually it's going to make it tougher on us so that's why we schedule the way we do and play the teams we play. I mean, we play a good schedule and play a lot of good teams on the road. So we think that's going to be our best opportunity to get a berth is to go in and beat those teams, which we've been able to do.

Me:
That leads me to my next question. How tough is it to put together a schedule as an independent? Especially this time of year where conference play is so huge.

Coach Heefner:
Well yeah, it's especially hard at this time of year. Or really anytime conference play kicks in. But as far as being an independent, we're probably in the best place to be, geographically, to still play good teams. There's top 25 teams all over the place. Baylor. TCU. The Oklahoma schools. Oral Roberts. Rice. Houston. So we've got a lot of options to make scheduling a little easier. But as far as the weekends go, it's still tough once the conference play begins.

Me:
Are those teams receptive to playing you guys? Do you have good relationships with them?

Coach Heefner:
Yeah, the one positive is that we've always been willing to play them at their place and now we're beginning to get them to play us home-and-home.

Me:
Oh really? That's cool.

Coach Heefner:
This year we had Baylor at our place. And TCU. And Texas Tech. We got Rice to play us at a neutral field in Frisco too. So it's getting better.

Me:
Now, you talked a little bit about your bullpen, but tell me about your ace Jordan Meeker. What has he meant to this team's success?

Coach Heefner:
Oh he's meant everything to us. And he's got everything you'd want. He's a 6'6" righty who can throw 90-94 with a good slider. And some of his best outings have been in the games we really needed him, like Texas A&M, two games with Oral Roberts, Louisiana-Monroe. And the good thing is those have been his best starts of the year. He obviously gives us a great opportunity to win.

DBU-JordanMeaker.jpg
(Staff ace Jordan Meaker is an imposing talent at 6'6")

Me:
Okay, last thing. Act like I'm an NCAA committee member. What would you say to me? Sell your team to me.

Coach Heefner:
Well I think we belong in the tournament because we've played a great schedule and been successful at it and beat some of the best teams in the country on the road and in neutral environments. I think it is a little bit tougher for us, being an independent, just from a motivational standpoint. We don't have that conference race to play up to. For us, it's every single game we play. We have to be up for every game because it may be a must-win. And just from a coaching standpoint, to see what our guys have done for getting themselves up for every single game is pretty impressive. Frankly, I feel like we're one of the best 64 teams in the country and we look forward to being able to prove that. I think we deserve that shot.

Me:
Coach, you DO realize that after this successful season you've had, you're probably going to get some offers from other schools in the off-season, ya' know?

Coach Heefner:
It's okay, DBU has taken good care of me.

Me:
Well, good. 'Coz they should.


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NOW, ABOUT THAT GAME AT BENEDETTI DIAMOND---
Dallas Baptist - 000 000 031 - 4 7 2
San Francisco - 000 000 200 - 2 9 1

WP- Jordan Meaker (7-1)
LP- Mitchell Bialosky (5-6)
Save - Tyson Bagley (11)

Coach Heefner told me in the above interview that if his team had a lead at the 6th or 7th inning, he feels confident that the Patriots are going to win. Well, he forgot to tell me that even if his team is within two runs going into the 8th inning, he probably felt confident too. Because that's the scenario that followed today's game at the cramped confines of Benedetti Diamond.

The Dons seemed to be in slight control of the game, out-hitting DBU while taking a 2-zip lead just after the 7th inning stretch. Then, the Patriots grabbed their bats with a little more gusto. Ryan Goins reached base on that awful "dropped third strike" rule. Evan Bigley, DBU's RBI machine, knocked Goins in with a screaming double.

Two batters later, Trevor Head, the Pats' home run leader, laser'd a shot off the netting in left field to put Dallas up for good at 3-2.

DBU-TrevorHeadHR.jpg
(Trevor Head gets his props after hitting the go-ahead home run in the 8th inning)

In the bottom of the 8th, Bagley strode to the mound and put the clamps on the USF hopes, setting the Dons down seven-up, six-down for his 11th save of the season.

So this is another plus-side win for Dallas Baptist. Wanna know who else the Patriots have beaten this year? How 'bout this roster of victims: Rice, Oral Roberts, Rice (again), UL-Monroe, Baylor, Texas A&M and Texas Tech. Not bad, eh? Now, just imagine if they didn't have to be saddled with weekend series against Northern Colorado, Houston Baptist, Northern Illinois and (again) Northern Colorado, because they have such trouble getting quality opponents all season long?

THAT'S another reason the RPI is a pile of junk.


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TOP TEN PLACES I'D WANT TO BE THIS WEEKEND---
Well, considering most of these series have already begun on Thursday, I'll keep this brief. Here's where I'd wanna be if I could wrestle that damned CSTV Lear Jet from Hangar 19...

1- Bucknell at Navy
I'm sorry, I just love championship baseball. And this weekend, Annapolis, Maryland is THE place to be.

2- SWAC tournament, Baton Rouge
Southern gets home field advantage. Will it help?

3- MEAC tournament, Norfolk, Virginia
Also known as the Bethune-Cookman Invitational.

4- No. 2 North Carolina at No. 1 Miami.
They've both sewn up national seeds, so no pressure. But still fun.

5- No. 28 Texas vs./at No. 7 Texas A&M
The student section is warming up their vocal chords.

6- No. 6 Nebraska at No. 15 Missouri
Two questions: Is NU really No. 6 in the country? And 2- Is Mizzou's RPI really No. 46?

7- Washington at No. 4 Arizona State.
This series means everything to the Huskies. Legitimacy. RPI points. At-large hopes.

8- No. 8 Oklahoma State vs. Oklahoma.
Two words: Bedlam. Series.
I love this rivalry. One of these years I'll make it by to see it in person too.

9- Ole Miss at No. 20 Kentucky.
Can a team ranked in the top 20 actually be a bubble team? I have UK down as one. And believe it or not, Ole Miss is on the cusp as well (RPI in the 40s).

10- San Diego State at No. 11 Cal State Fullerton
After Stephen Strausberg throws in game one, the Titans will win in a pair of routs.


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AND YOU THOUGHT THE DIVISION I SELECTION COMMITTEE WAS BAD ABOUT FUNNELING TEAMS FROM THE SAME REGION?---

Check out the Division II regional pairings below. Note that other than a few scant details here and there, it's almost completely a truly "regional" format. There's very little sending of teams to outside their immediate areas. Take away Nebraska-Kearney's trip to Chico and Abeline Christian and Texas A&M-Kingsville going to Cleveland, Mississippi, it looks to me that rest of the field is destined for bus rides, not airline fights. (Then again, I have to admit that I'm not so sure of the locations of schools such as Caldwell, Dowling, Stillman and Erskine, so maybe they're far away from their regional sites too. But you get my drift.) Here's how the regionals for D-2 look:


Central Regional at Emporia, Kansas

1. *Emporia State 48-8. 
2. Nebraska-Omaha 42-11. 
3. Wayne State (Nebraska) 40-11. 
4. Central Missouri 41-15. 
5. Minnesota State Mankato 27-23. 
6. Concordia-St. Paul 27-14

North Atlantic Regional at Johnstown, Pennsylvania

1. West Chester 41-14
. 2. West Virginia State 36-12. 
3. Concord 35-13. 
4. *Pittsburgh-Johnstown 35-17-1. 
5. Shippensburg 34-23
. 6. Kutztown 30-24

North Central Regional at Rensselaer, Indiana

1. Grand Valley State 34-11. 
2. *Saint Joseph’s (Indiana) 44-16. 
3. Bellarmine 35-19. 
4. Ashland 35-15
. 5. Wayne State (Michigan) 31-17. 
6. Northern Kentucky 37-22

Northeast Regional at Rindge, New Hampshire

1. *Franklin Pierce 38-12. 
2. Bryant 38-17. 
3. Southern Connecticut State 33-15
. 4. Caldwell 32-17. 
5. Dowling 28-17. 
6. C.W. Post 29-25
 


South Regional at Tampa, Florida

1. *Tampa 38-9-1
. 2. Tusculum 40-13
. 3. Catawba 40-16
. 4. Florida Tech 35-18-1
. 5. Carson-Newman 41-16
. 6. Stillman 26-24
 


South Atlantic Regional at Mount Olive, North Carolina

1. *Mount Olive 49-5. 
2. Columbus State 39-15. 
3. South Carolina-Aiken 43-13. 
4. North Georgia 37-19
. 5. Belmont Abbey 40-20. 
6. Erskine 44-11

South Central Regional at Cleveland, Mississippi

1. *Delta State 45-9
. 2. Southern Arkansas 44-9
. 3. West Alabama 45-11
. 4. Abilene Christian 43-15
. 5. Ouachita Baptist 43-14. 
6. Texas A&M-Kingsville 31-29

West Regional at Chico, California

1. Sonoma State 46-13. 
2. UC San Diego 41-16. 
3. *Cal State Chico 39-15. 
4. Cal State Stanislaus 37-21. 
5. Western Oregon 39-17
. 6. Nebraska-Kearney 33-25

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Interesting, huh? Well, considering I just drove back from San Francisco tonight, I'm quite punchy at this point. So anything will just pretty much glaze over me now. See you tomorrow.

Now consider yourself Dallas Baptized.

G'night.

Comments

Are you suuuuurreee you want to be in Florida? We've hit monsoonal conditions at every stop. Hopefully the weekend is conducive for hitting up Wet Willies on South Beach.

If you want, Jason and I can give a guest recap of the Miami/UNC game, since you don't have the private jet CBS College gave us (and by "jet" I mean "Grand Marquis")

Personally.. I'm rooting for Ole Miss, lets just say I have my reasons.

I suspect Brody's reason for rooting for Ole Miss is that last year's "Going Yard" guys chose Ole Miss as the best college baseball venue, due in large part I gather from the school's co-eds. Just a hunch ...

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Eric Sorenson Eric Sorenson
Eric Sorenson is CSTV.com's National Baseball Columnist, and also appears on CSTV as a baseball expert