NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Building a program from the ground up isn’t an easy thing to do.
But that’s exactly what baseball manager Scott Googins has done since taking over the reigns at Xavier University nine years ago.
After not qualifying for the NCAA tournament in the school’s history, two of his squads have made it into the field since 2009. That includes this year’s team, which secured its berth by winning the Big East championship.
XU earned the No. 4 seed in the Vanderbilt regional by defeating the Creighton Bluejays 5-0 in Sunday’s conference title game.
“I'm happy for our seniors, guys that have put in four and five years of hard work, and it's great to see that hard work be rewarded,” Googins said.
The Musketeers also had to defeat St. John's and Seton Hall after falling to Creighton in Game 1 of the double-elimination tournament.
“I am happy that our seniors were able to win a Big East Championship and will be able to go to their first regional,” said Cincinnati native Patrick Jones who picked Xavier back in 2011 largely because of his skipper.
Conference championships, NCAA appearances and MLB draft picks, which Googins has molded seven of while at XU, were pipe dreams when he took over the program in 2006.
The team was coming off a 19-35 the previous season and was limited in its resources.
In fact, the Musketeers had only one non-losing season between 1999 and 2006, a 27-27 campaign under longtime manager John Morey, the school's wins leader (287).
While his ball club struggled in his first two positions at the helm, Googins used the coaching experience and talent of recruiting he developed while serving as an assistant at Miami (Ohio) and Indiana to turn around the XU program.
“What I love about Scott is that he is a tremendously positive guy, and I want to be like that,” IU baseball coach Tracy Smith said of his former protégé. “He is one of the most positive people you will ever meet.”
That positivity helped in Xavier's baseball renaissance.
Thanks to their strong showing in the Big East tournament, the 29-27 Musketeers secured their third straight .500 or better season, fourth in the last five years. His team has finished worse than fourth in their conference only once since 2007.
Googins is 259-260 during his run in Cincinnati, good for second in school history. And not bad given the top-heavy nature of college baseball.
He also holds the distinction of having the only NCAA baseball tournament win in Xavier history. His 2009 club defeated Sam Houston State, 9-6, in the Houston Regional hosted by Rice.
The Muskies went 1-2 during that NCAA run.
And while they won’t come close to the school record 39 wins they picked in 2009 when they won the Atlantic 10 Conference title and earned him ABCA Mideast Region Coach of the Year, Googins thinks this team has a chance to do a little more damage in the postseason.
“We feel that the change in conference and the quality of competition in our conference tournament has really prepared us for this weekend,” Googins said.
Strong-armed seniors and all-conference performers Vinny Nittoli and Scott Klever lead the Musketeers’ pitching staff.
Nittoli, who’s scheduled as Friday night’s starter, ranks among the nation's leaders with a 1.98 ERA (67th). Both players have picked up six wins on the year.
Freshman southpaw Trent Astle (5-4) is coming off the best game of his collegiate career – a complete-game three hitter in the Big East Tournament championship game at MCU Park in Brooklyn – so he’ll have confidence heading into the weekend.
While Googins hasn’t recruited a lineup full of big bats, he does have gritty, smart hitters in the middle of his lineup.
One of them is Mitch Elliot who after an injury-plagued season appeared in mid-season shape during the Big East tournament. He went 8-for-18 with four RBIs and three runs scored over the course of the four games, which was good enough to earn him the Most Outstanding Player Award.
Derek Hasenbeck and Daniel Rizzie each claimed a spot on the conference all-tournament teams, but they’ve been strong for XU all season. Hasenbeck is batting .307 with 35 runs and 27 RBIs, while Rizzie leads the Muskies with 38 runs scored and is solid behind the plate.
Andre Jernigan has exceeded most exceptions (except for maybe his coach's) by driving in a team-best 38 RBIs in his freshman season.
While they have other weapons, Xavier hopes Jones, their cleanup hitter, is playing at full strength. Despite playing in only 26 games, he has a .367 batting average and 17 RBIs.
Although even if he were hurt, it isn’t something that would keep Jones from playing this weekend.
“Playing in the NCAA tournament has been something that we have wanted to do since I started playing at Xavier,” he said. “Being able to go play against top level competition is exciting and it should be a fun weekend.”
Despite their optimism, “fun” isn’t the word most would use to describe the Musketeers’ path to their first-ever Super Regional round.
In their opener Friday night, they’ll take on regional host Vanderbilt that is led by Tyler Beede, who many consider a top-10 prospect in the upcoming MLB amateur draft.
Despite losing two of their three games in last week’s SEC Tournament, the 13th-ranked Commodores (41-18) are a formidable foe and one of the favorites to advance to the College World Series.
Oregon (42-18) and Clemson (36-23), both ranked among the top 25 for most of the season, also made the trip to Nashville.
“I figured that we would get three quality teams and we did – one team that won its tournament (Xavier) and two at-large teams that we’re very familiar with,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin told the Nashville Post. “Not a surprise. … But it’s a very good regional.”
But Googins’ boys aren’t intimidated – and some might say are “excited” about the prospect of playing Cinderella.
“It's exciting to get the chance to keep playing and make some noise in the NCAA tournament,” said Xavier senior Michael Moore.
Moore, a Nashville-area native, has a brother, Navery, who served as Vandy's closer when they went to the College World Series in 2011.
“It's even better getting the opportunity to go back home and play in front of family and friends in an environment I am familiar with. The fact that my brother played at Vanderbilt also adds a little extra incentive to show people that we are the real deal.”
Oregon and Clemson open the four-team, double-elimination region at noon Friday. The first pitch for the Xavier-Vanderbilt game is scheduled for 8 p.m.
The games on Saturday will be determined by the outcomes Friday night.
Googins doesn’t seem to be too concerned either way.
“We're excited to get out there and compete against some of the perennial powerhouses from across the country,” he said.
Below is a tournament breakdown including the series schedule and a team-by-team breakdown for Xavier
Oregon vs. Clemson, noon
; Vanderbilt vs. Xavier, 7 p.m.
Saturday: Friday’s losing teams, 1 p.m. (elimination game) , Friday’s winning teams, 7 p.m.
Sunday: Elimination game, noon ; Championship round, 7 p.m.
Monday: Championship round, 6 p.m. (if necessary)
No. 1 seed Vanderbilt
Rankings: 13th (writers); 14th (coaches)
RPI/Strength of schedule: 8/5
Players to watch:
- Sophomore pitcher Walker Buehler won 10 games, tied for second in the SEC, without being part of the weekend rotation.
- Sophomore second baseman Dansby Swanson leads the team in batting average (.336), runs scored (47), doubles (21) and stolen bases (17).
- Junior pitcher Tyler Beede, a top prospect in the upcoming draft, is 7-7 with a 3.49 ERA. The righty has 92 strikeouts in 90.1 innings this season.
No. 2 seed Oregon
Rankings: 19th (writers); 18th (coaches)
RPI/Strength of schedule: 23/81
Players to watch:
- Senior second baseman Aaron Payne gets on base. He is the program’s all-time leader in runs scored (129), stolen bases (44) and hit by pitches (70). He’s also a key for the Ducks “small-ball” offense. The team has 81 sacrifice bunts this season, by far the most of any team left in the postseason.
- Senior pitcher Jeff Gold has 23 career wins, tied for the most in program history, including 10 this season.
No. 3 seed Clemson
Rankings: 26th (writers)
RPI/Strength of schedule: 49/44
Players to watch:
- Senior second baseman Steve Wilkerson has a .318 batting average and has reached base in 24 straight games coming into the regional.
- Junior Daniel Gossett is Clemson’s first All-ACC first-team pitcher since 2008. He’s 7-1 with a 1.78 ERA.