College baseball: Southern Utah mourns, celebrates dropped program
Cedar City • For baseball players at Southern Utah University, condemned simply because they play the wrong sport at the wrong time, last-meal time approaches.
The program dies this weekend at the Summit League tournament in Sioux Falls, S.D., barring an unlikely championship that would delay the execution until after the NCAAs.
Either way, the death sentence seems unfair.
Southern Utah baseball has never been wildly successful limited by unpredictable February-to-May weather, relative isolation and competition from higher-profile rivals like Utah, BYU and UNLV. Four-star recruits rarely have had SUU on their wish list, but the program has provided a place for true student-athletes to play, get a degree and move ahead with their lives.
Sometimes noble purpose is not enough. Southern Utah moves to the Big Sky Conference on July 1 and, while the new league provides needed stability and scheduling advantages for most sports, baseball is not among them.
"It just didn't make sense to commit our limited financial resources to a program that didn't have a home in a viable conference," said athletic director Ken Beazer.
So SUU baseball is going away.
Beazer announced in January that the program would be discontinued. Players and coaches were shocked, according to sophomore Chaisson Low, who grew up in Cedar City and is one of 16 Utah high-school products on the roster.
"I've been coming to SUU games my whole life," Low said. "It's a shame to see the program go down. Cedar is such a great baseball town. But things happen that you can't control."
One day after Clayton Carson arrived on campus to begin his new job as assistant coach, Southern Utah dropped the program.
"That was tough news," he said. "We did our best to rally the team and say, 'Hey, let's finish with a bang.' But it was really tough."
An uncertain future • Aside from preparing for the season, Southern Utah's non-seniors faced the task of reorganizing an uncertain future.
Although the school plans to honor their scholarships through next year, those wanting to continue baseball had to start looking around.
Sophomore Tariq Staton called his father as soon as he heard the news.
"It put a lot of pressure on him," Troy Staton recalled. "My son said, 'We have to start the recruiting process again.' He told me, 'Every at-bat has to be a miracle now because I'm going to be watched.' He wanted to put up some numbers that would help the recruiting process."
The season quickly became "an open audition" for the players, Beazer said. Coaches sent mass emails to colleagues around the country, encouraging them to scout the Thunderbirds.
"It was sad because we're a family," Tariq Staton said. "We travel together. We do everything together. So it hurt. But it gave us motivation, too. We wanted to show everybody we should still be here."
It didn't happen at least early.
The Thunderbirds lost 14 of their first 16 games. It took them a month to beat a Division I opponent.
Senior Marcus Romero believes the hangover from cancellation of the program was part of the problem.
"That was the lump of coal in the back of everyone's mind," he said.
A bombshell • As March turned to April, SUU was outscored 60-12 during a four-game losing streak. Its record dropped to 6-20.
Then, another bombshell.
Coach Dave Eldredge and assistant Chase Hudson were fired for reportedly failing to follow state policy while purchasing equipment.
"That was even more shocking than the program getting cut," said junior Kelsey Outram. "They just called us before practice and said two of our coaches were let go. Nobody knew what happened."
Carson suddenly found himself running a Division I program his first head coaching job. Department administrator Kit Janes became his assistant.
The firings were "another big blow for us," Carson said. "But I thought our team looked around and said, 'Hey, it's us against the world.' I felt it was a rallying point."
SUU won 12 of its next 23 games, including a 6-0 victory over perennial conference power Oral Roberts.
"Everybody was hanging their heads for a while," said junior Justin Neubauer. "It was rough. But we've come together."
Just in time for the end.
"Everybody wants to keep playing" • In the coming months, Thunderbird Field will become home to the SUU women's soccer team. Those who played on it during the school's final baseball season will scatter.
Carson would like to continue coaching but has no idea where the path might lead.
Among the players, Outram has an offer from St. Mary's and Chase Rezac is headed to the University of Utah. Sophomores Kolby Rimer and Jesse Bristow will play at Colorado State-Pueblo.
Players such as Neubauer, who is talking to UNLV, Oral Roberts and Oregon, remain immersed in the recruiting process.
Still others, including Staton and Ronnie Burton Jr., hope summer-league participation will lead to scholarships.
If Burton finds a new school, it will be his fourth in five years. He started at Pacific and transferred to a junior college before signing with SUU last year.
"College athletics is big business, and football is moving to the Big Sky," Burton said. "That's something I can't control, so for me, it's on to the next thing. Another journey."
Sadly, some baseball careers will end with the final out of Southern Utah's final game.
Low, with two years of eligibility remaining, isn't "sure what I'm going to do. I don't have any nibbles right now. So I might have to think about my education and stay."
Same for sophomore Taggart Lunceford.
"I've talked to some other schools, but it's not looking good," he said. "... It's just a bad deal that it ended here. Everybody wants to keep playing."
What they're saying about SUU baseball
Senior Bo Cuthbertson • "There's no place like this. It's always windy always crazy. Crazy things happen all the time. Lots of runs. Exciting games. It's been fun to play here because you never know what's going to happen."
Sophomore Jesse Bristow • "SUU gave a kid like me someone from a small high school in Utah the chance to walk on and play at a four-year in-state school. It's something that's not available everywhere you go."
Senior Marcus Romero • "Of course we're sad. Everyone is very sad. But it's my last year and I don't have to go out and look for another school. I feel really bad for the underclassmen. It's been rough on them."
Summit League Tournament
Southern Utah's season isn't over yet. As one of the top four teams in the Summit League, the Thunderbirds have qualified for the conference tournament, which begins Thursday at Johnson Stadium in Tulsa, Okla. The pairings:
• SUU (12-11, 18-34) is the No. 4 seed and will play No. 1 seed Oral Roberts (17-6, 33-22)
• No. 2 Oakland (15-6, 23-29) and No. 3 North Dakota State (14-10, 38-18) play in the other game.