Cameron Coughlan passed up his senior season after catching pro scouts attention with his speed. (Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)
Another successful season was capped for the second consecutive year when BYU's baseball team won the Mountain West Conference Tournament, advancing to the NCAA post-season.
The late-season run proved third-year Coach Vance Law right as his Cougars finished with a 31-31-1 record. BYU, who had been picked second in the pre season league poll, won 14 of its final 20 games and it's .321 batting average ended up being the 29th best in the nation.
"I'm pleased we peaked at the right time," said Law. "Our coaching staff never gave up and it transferred over to player performance in the last three weeks of the season. We showed a lot of character and heart. It's a credit to our staff for staying with people. We didn't mesh and blend well at the start, but we brought it together at the end. "
BYU upset league champion and tourney favorite San Diego State in consecutive games after losing seven straight to the Aztecs to claim the berth to the NCAA Regional, the ninth time the Cougars have been to a regional.
In the Los Angeles Regionals, BYU battled host USC, ranked No. 17, into extra innings before losing 5-4 in the 12th. Then fourth-seeded BYU eliminated Maine and upset No. 15 Cal State Northridge to earn a rematch with the Trojans. Behind 9-0, BYU battled back through USC's hidden ball trick which quelled a four-run rally and was behind 11-10 with the bases loaded in the eighth inning before losing 13-10.
Because BYU suffered an inordinate amount of injuries, its season didn't develop into a 40-win club as expected with a schedule that featured NCAA post-season teams like Stanford, Notre Dame, Texas Tech and Washington.
First, a back injury forced pre-season All-American Kainoa Obrey out of the line-up by the end of February, but he still ended up as an 11th-round draft pick by the Kansas City Royals. Obrey, who helped BYU win two of three games in his native Hawaii, is hopeful of being granted a hardship medical redshirt. Scrambling for a third baseman to replace Obrey, Law moved versatile Rob Itri from second to the hot corner.
Cameron Coughlan, who had been starting in left field, then moved to second, but injured his throwing arm about the same time as freshman outfielder Ryan Chambers pulled a hamstring at Southern Utah. As Law plugged the holes, sophomore Dave Jensen continued to be on a terror.
Jensen, a first baseman who was drafted a year ago while serving a Church mission, had slumped as low as a .258 batting average in February. But the Las Vegas native found his groove in his hometown when BYU debuted in the MWC season.
Jensen, who ended up signing as a third-round draft pick by the Royals, hit three doubles and a home run to give the Cougars their first MWC victory over UNLV as they tried to defend their league title. Jensen was selected as third team All-American by Collegiate Baseball, co-MVP of the MWC, MVP of the NCAA Regional, first-team All-MWC and was a first-team Verizon Academic All-District Selection.
Jensen finished 31st nationally with a .411 batting average and eighth with 29 doubles.
Not far behind Jensen in helping the team's late-season rise were Matt Carson, Jeff Mousser, Doug Jackson, Coughlan and Itri.
"Mousser had a very good year," said Law. "He has a breaking ball that can keep people honest."
Mousser, one of seven sophomore hurlers on the staff, was BYU's leading pitcher with a 9-4 record in 90 innings and a 4.88 earned run average. Among Mousser's highlights was a 74-pitch complete seven-inning game to defeat Air Force. Ute Coach Tim Esmay praised Mousser for taking a 5-0 shutout to the ninth inning off 112 pitches to defeat Utah. The next time Mousser faced Utah, BYU won handily 19-4 despite a triple play executed by the Utes. Mousser nearly pulled off the coup over USC in the opener of the NCAA Regional.
The only BYU pitcher to record an ERA better than Mousser was ace reliever Tyler Dabo who finished at 3.90 with five of the team's 13 saves. Dabo, who led the team with 26 appearances, also picked up two victories even though he never started a game.
Catching the Cougar pitchers was mainly senior Lars Birkeland, who battled back through injuries and threw out 46 of 67 runners attempting to steal bases.
"Our seniors gave us big performances at the end, especially Jeff Stone," said Law.
Stone, a senior lefty, finished the season four-games off the school record for career victories. Stone's 28 wins ranks him fourth in school annals as he showed signs of brilliance during his senior season and ended up signing a free agent contract with the Ogden Raptors. Stone had a strong performance against then No. 1 Stanford, baffled batters at Notre Dame in a 1-0 loss, and led to the upset of CSUN at the NCAA Regional.
Carson proved to be a pitcher's best friend, logging nine assists from right field. Drafted in the fifth round and signed by the New York Yankees, Carson's arm helped turn double plays at Texas Tech, at Hawaii, at Air Force, at New Mexico and against SDSU in the MWC tournament. Carson, a junior who was voted first-team All-MWC and to the All-MWC Tournament Team, hit for the cycle for the first time in his life in a 12-5 victory over New Mexico. The Cougar co-captain set a BYU career mark being hit 29 times in his career by pitches.
Coughlan, who was the fourth Cougar drafted (signed as the 18th round pick by the Texas Rangers) at the end of the season, ended up ranked 22nd in NCAA triples with seven. Coughlan, also a junior, was voted All-Tournament at NCAA Regional, selected first-team All-MWC and to the All-MWC Tournament Team. Coughlan's 45 career stolen bases ranks tied for ninth in BYU records . His third-inning grand slam gave BYU a 4-0 lead with no outs in an 8-3 victory at UNLV.
Another BYU grand slam was hit by Jackson in a victory at New Mexico. Jackson, who was MVP of the MWC Tournament and a second-team All-MWC performer, had six consecutive hits in the league tournament. Also recording stalwart performances in that tournament were all-tourney performers Jason Garcia, Ranger Wiens and Jake Stubblefield (also named to the all-region team).
"For us it was an advantage because we had unbelievable crowd support," said Law of BYU hosting the MWC Tournament. "We'd love to host it every year."
Four attendance records were set this season at BYU's Larry H. Miller Field, overall attendance at 31,275 surpassing 17,378 for last season; average attendance; attendance for a three-game series; and the MWC Tournament attendance mark, averaging over 2,000 fans. The three-game series with Utah at the start of April established a new record with 7,725 fans attending, including the second, third and fourth best crowds in Miller Park history of 2,863, 2,611 and 2,251. The old record was 5,720 against UNLV last season, including the record-setting 3,120 fans who watched BYU clinch the MWC title. The average attendance at home was up to 1,422 compared to 1,241 last season.
"Overall our conference was stronger than in the past," said Law, who's team finished in third place in the MWC with a 15-14 record.
In addition to losing juniors Carson and Coughlan and sophomore Jensen to the pro ranks, the Cougars graduate seniors Birkeland, Stone, Ryan Adams, James Ray and Matt Ward, the later trio being pitchers who contributed to this year's success.