Kragthorpe: UVU baseball team chases NCAA record and more
Orem • Goose Kallunki, Utah Valley University's 6-foot-5 first baseman, sounds like a character from a fictional sports book.
The Wolverines' pitching staff features Adam Gunn.
Each of UVU coach Eric Madsen's five sons commemorates a famous major leaguer: Mick, Maddux, McGwire, Mays and Murphy.
Somehow, we all should have known this team would make a name for itself in college baseball.
Having won 32 games in a row, the Wolverines (39-11) this week are positioned to break the NCAA Division I record of 34, shared by Texas and Florida Atlantic.
Regardless of what happens tonight against Utah and later this week against Northern Colorado at Brent Brown Ballpark in UVU's record-breaking attempt, postseason play is the unknown ending of the Wolverines' success story. They could finish next week's Great West Conference tournament in Orem with a 41-game winning streak - and Madsen figures that would be just enough to land the school's first NCAA regional bid.
That's why Madsen said, "Really, we're not going to be happy if we don't set the record at 41."
The Wolverines have survived some scares along the way, and the streak is much more fun than burdensome to them. "We've got the right guys to be able to handle it," Kallunki said before Monday's practice. "If you walked through our locker room right now, you'd know we're having a good time. We're not worried about it."
After practice, the Wolverines helped coach in a youth camp. After all, kids and baseball are a theme for Madsen.
Once his choice of Mick for his first-born son's name as an ode to Mickey Mantle was approved, extending the baseball thread throughout the family was Jessica Madsen's idea, according to her husband.
She liked Macee as a girl's name, so they named their next child Macee Jo, in honor of Joe DiMaggio. And then the boys just kept coming.
Choosing all those names "turned into a nightmare," Madsen said, laughing. "We didn't really expect that many children."
But much like maintaining a winning streak, the Madsens have managed not only to name the kids, but nurture them.
The streak is not a complete shock, considering that 24 of the 32 wins have come against Great West Conference opponents, after UVU went 48-4 in league play the previous two seasons. Yet the Wolverines also have beaten Arizona (then ranked No. 4), Utah and BYU along the way, and they've responded in some tough situations.
"They don't panic," Madsen said. "It's just a really special group of guys that rely on each other and feed off of each other's energy."
UVU has won both with late rallies and close-out pitching efforts. In the seventh victory of the streak, the Wolverines were down to their last strike against North Dakota. Jake Rickenbach tied the game with a two-run homer and UVU won 7-6 in 10 innings.
"My lowest moment and my highest moment, in just a matter of 10 minutes or so," Rickenbach said, remembering his error in the top of the ninth.
In the 30th win, Saturday at New York Tech, UVU trailed 3-2 with one out in the last inning before Kallunki's single and Rickenbach's double gave them a 4-3 victory.
That episode added to Kallunki's legend. Scratched from the lineup because of back spasms, he came through as a pinch hitter. Kallunki's given name is Maclain - but unlike Madsen's sons, he's not named after Denny McLain. The "Goose" nickname came from his father, whose favorite baseball player was Goose Gossage, and discovered how his infant son liked having a baseball in his hands.
Kallunki leads the nation with 74 RBIs in 49 games, while ranking eighth with a .418 batting average and being tied for 10th with 15 homers. The Wolverines' .349 team average also ranks first.
Eight of the nine regulars in the lineup are Utah high school products (including six from Utah County), as are most of the pitchers. The 6-foot-5, 236-pound Kallunki and pitchers Taylor Mangum and Jeremy Gendlek are being scouted professionally, so there's some talent in the program, but UVU's hallmark is finding and developing players who can thrive at this level.
With so many players who grew up in the shadow of BYU, the Wolverines enjoyed a 14-11 win over the Cougars on May 1, their 24th consecutive win. In front of 5,456 fans in Orem, Kallunki hit a three-run homer and Billy Burgess had four hits, in addition to robbing a home run with a spectacular catch in center field.
Ironically, while his teammates were recording 13 hits, Rickenbach's school record-tying 24-game hitting streak ended that night. The Wolverines hope their latest streak just keeps going.