Executive Managing Editor
It is just past 9 p.m. on June 22. The sun is setting in Omaha, NE, and perhaps on the historic run that the University of California, Santa Barbara baseball team has accomplished. No Gauchos baseball squad has ever made it this far and the players know it.
They also know that this might be the end. They’re down 3-0 against the University of Arizona in the bottom of the 9th inning: a time when any team starts to chalk up the game to a loss. But as the players watch from the dugout, not a single one looks upset or disappointed — and least of all worried. Instead, these Gauchos are calm, cool and collected.
They have been here before.
“We got ‘em right where we want ‘em.” The mantra that filled the locker room for the UCSB baseball team throughout its unprecedented run this year best reflects the team’s play on the field. After blazing through the season against the mighty Big West Conference with a record of 43-20-1, the Gauchos went all the way to the College World Series, a double-elimination tournament to determine the best college baseball team in the nation.
Reflecting on the season this past week after its finish in Omaha, Head Coach Andrew Checketts has one word to describe the last year: “magical.”
The 40-year-old Checketts has quite a few experiences upon which he can reflect. After a short professional stint signed to the Boston Red Sox, he began his coaching career in 2001 at a city college in Riverside. Throughout his baseball career, he has played and worked for an assortment of coaches inducted in various sports Halls of Fame. Checketts said his experiences allowed him to “cherry-pick” different coaching philosophies, assembling his own foundational approach.
A typical year in college baseball is grueling. If the mammoth length of over 50 games in the regular season was not enough, the coaching staff’s recruitment period begins almost immediately after the season concludes. Recruiting alone could be a full-time job. It is squarely on the coaching staff’s shoulders to gather a group of talented young men with enough character to function successfully as a team.
Since Checketts began coaching at UCSB in 2012, the recruitment process has had remarkable results. Before his arrival, the team was nowhere near the baseball map, missing the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) playoff tournament in ten consecutive seasons. In his first year of recruiting, Checketts brought in Dillon Tate, who eventually became the fourth player selected in the 2015 Major League Baseball (MLB) Draft.
Since Checketts’ first year, the Gauchos have logged more wins than losses in four consecutive seasons. Relief pitcher Trevor Bettencourt, fresh off of his junior season at UCSB, described the environment his coaches built as one based on trust and responsibility between the coaches and players.
“[The coaches] know that we want to be successful so bad that they trust us to monitor ourselves,” he said.
Bettencourt has come a long way in terms of trusting himself. After starting his college career at University of Tennessee, he threw out his elbow, and the school withdrew his scholarship. Fresh off a surgery and still in a cast, he received a call from Checketts, offering him another chance at a career.
“I’ve had a long road,” Bettencourt said. “It’s been an unbelievable journey.”
Despite the Gauchos’ stellar 2014-15 season, the team experienced a heavy amount of turnover last summer. According to Checketts, the previous season had seen plenty of raw talent, but the coaching staff was working with a cleaned closet at the start of the past season.
“We had so many great guys that left,” Checketts said. “The good thing was there were plenty of guys eagerly waiting for their turn.”
Catcher Sam Cohen, now finished with his freshman season, agrees with the sentiment.
“Honestly,” he said, “we’re a bunch of kids. We play the game like we would if we were nine or ten years old. We just go out there and we have fun. That’s the whole idea of baseball.” Cohen attributed the team’s mentality to its “loose” disposition on the field.
That same so-called “looseness” led to the team’s demeanor throughout the season: calm and confident.
“We had the big names last year and we performed really well, but our postseason ended pretty shortly,” said pitcher Shane Bieber, now finished with his sophomore season. “This year, we had this young arrogance about us, which is a good thing on a team. We expected to win every game and that bolstered our energy.”
That energy helped the Gauchos blaze out to an 18-3 start. The team’s confidence skyrocketed over the fence as a result, leading to a string of losses. The players agree that some of those losses were games they should have won.
“We were struggling to put a whole game together,” Bieber said. “We got away with it at the beginning of the year, but the Big West Conference is too competitive. The whole team was frustrated.”
Because of UCSB’s lackluster history, the players also felt they were not getting respect from other teams and coaches. As the team entered the NCAA tournament, the players said, no one thought much of the Gauchos’ potential.
“We were just a bunch of bums from Santa Barbara who wear sandals,” said Bieber, on the perceived sentiments of other teams.
UCSB ran through the Nashville Regionals of the NCAA Division 1 Baseball Tournament, exceeding its results in the previous season. At the NCAA Super Regionals against Louisville, two wins separated the Gauchos from the College World Series tournament, which the team had never qualified for.
The players arrived in Kentucky for the best-of-three series with other pressures on their mind, however: finals. The players took their UCSB course finals in the heart of Louisville, Kentucky.
“We had 27 guys taking tests the night before the game from 7 to 10 p.m.,” Checketts said.
There was another factor playing into the team’s preparation right as the players arrived in Louisville: four Gauchos were selected in the 2016 draft, including Bieber and Bettencourt.
Bieber was pragmatic about the pick. “It was a great feeling,” he said. “After I heard, though, I finished practice and then studied really hard for a three-hour final that night.”
For Bettencourt, this was the completion of a long journey since he had blown out his elbow at Tennessee. “My teammates were so great at supporting me. We had such a great support system that you could never get down on yourself.”
When he got drafted, he said, his teammates gave him all the support, along with a share of lightheartedness.
“If I was late to a position,” he said, “everyone would joke, ‘oh, so you got drafted and now you can do whatever you want, huh?’ We had that kind of bond where everything was fun. No matter what was going on, it was just baseball.”
Louisville had no shortage of talent to potentially ruin all the fun going on. The Cardinals’ pitcher, Zack Burdi, is a lethal weapon. Taken 26th overall in the draft, Burdi was recognized all season long as one of the nation’s elite pitchers.
UCSB won the first game of the matchup, now one win away from the College World Series. In the second game, the Cardinals jumped out to an early lead, seizing a 3-0 advantage in the fourth inning and holding it all the way until the bottom of the ninth. A loss would be a significant blow to the Gauchos’ chances to advance.
Checketts remained calm. After all, his team was playing with “house money.” No one had expected UCSB to be here. “The pressure was on Louisville,” he said, “and you could feel it.”
The players did not need Checketts to keep them calm. Bieber recalled the feeling among the players as “weird,” saying they felt something special going on.
Team standout JJ Muno singled to get on base. Dempsey Grover was walked. Billy Frederick entered as a pinch hitter, and he was walked.
All of a sudden, with one out, UCSB had the bases loaded.
Checketts inserted Cohen as a pinch hitter for the next at-bat. Cohen was just a freshman, going up against one of the country’s best pitchers in Burdi. Throughout the entire season, Cohen had stepped up to bat just 28 times, the fourth fewest at-bats of any batter at UCSB.
“We were down 3-0, getting carved up pretty good,” Cohen recalled. “That last inning, I was called up to the dugout and they told me to get ready to hit.” He was receiving the opportunity of a lifetime.
“I was ready,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to keep this going and just find a way to keep us up there.’”
Just a few minutes later, at one ball and two strikes, Cohen found himself a pitch away from being struck out. His rare opportunity was dwindling.
Burdi ripped another pitch towards Cohen. Moments later, history was made.
“I remember hitting it,” Cohen said, “but I didn’t know where the ball was.”
As he crossed first base, it became clear. Cohen had knocked the ball out of the park for a walk-off grand slam, worth four runs and an automatic win. In an unthinkable finish, UCSB was going to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series, the first time in school history.
The dugout emptied as the players and the entire staff flooded the field in joy. They waited for Cohen to round the bases before swarming him in celebration.
Bieber recalled the players being in shock as the game ended. Bettencourt puts it in a colorful way. “Our veins were popping out. No one knew what to do.”
The players toppled on top of each other, Bettencourt said. “What none of us knew was that the umpire was in the middle of it all. I hope he was happy about it. We’d just made history with one of the greatest wins ever.”
Cohen went from a freshman with one home run for the entire season to an overnight celebrity. Sports personality Dan Patrick interviewed him on radio the next morning. Five-time MLB all-star and UCSB alum Michael Young told him that he had jumped into a swimming pool, fully clothed, when he saw the grand slam.
Cohen himself has drawn a lesson from the whole experience. “For any kid sitting on the bench or anyone not getting as many opportunities as they should or could,” he said, “always be ready. You never know when your number is going to be called. Just be ready.”
They have been here before. Before it was Louisville, and now they face Arizona. UCSB is again down 3-0 in the bottom of the ninth. The fun slogan that the team had sported throughout the year is now a mission statement: “we got ‘em right where we want ‘em.”
Bettencourt had come in during the fourth inning as a relief pitcher. At that point, the Gauchos were already down 3-0, and they held the Wildcats scoreless since, striking out seven players. Bettencourt made it a point to himself, he said, to take in the moment.
“I stood on the mound and looked at the 22,000 people, appreciating where I was,” he said. “If I was eight years old and you said the word ‘Omaha,’ my first thought would be ‘oh, College World Series.’ So now here I am, in Omaha. I thought, ‘I need to enjoy this. I need to take this in.’”
As the stadium roared, Bettencourt said, he could not hear a thing.
Unfortunately, the Gauchos’ luck in hitting had run out. The Wildcats threw out UCSB, ending a historic run for the university baseball team.
In the locker room, the players said, there was not a dry eye. “I had a hard time speaking,” Checketts said. “All I could get out was a ‘thank you.’ I was so grateful for all of their commitment.”
“You know you did something special when the bus driver was crying with us,” Bettencourt said. “That’s how emotional it got. That’s how much of an impact it made with all of us.”
He returned to the locker room after doing a few media interviews, still emotional from the loss. According to Bettencourt, “Muno shouted, ‘What are you crying for, you baby? No one else is crying any more.’ We all started cracking up. It’s special to be a part of a team like that, where you can be heartbroken but appreciate the ride you just had.”
The players will shift around with the season over. Bieber and Bettencourt are headed to the MLB. As for Cohen, he is determined to get there soon himself. But first, he said, he has business to settle at UCSB.
“I’m excited,” Cohen said. “We’ve got a great incoming class and we’re going to do something special next year as well.”
As for Checketts, he is tirelessly back in recruiting mode, preparing diligently for next season.
“Right after we’ve gotten back, I’ve been in the office until midnight,” he said. With a long career under his belt already, Checketts is looking squarely towards the future.