It all kicked off with a slide.
Standing in the middle of Smith’s Ballpark, Utah freshman shortstop Matt Richardson barked at an Oregon State baserunner for what Richardson considered a dirty slide. No matter that Richardson is a soft-spoken 160-pounder going up against a Beavers team ranked No. 1 in the country.
Nothing escalated beyond words between the teams before play resumed. The Utes, who entered the series with four wins all season, won that game and eventually two out of three games in the series to knock the Beavers down the national rankings, a bright spot in a season full of losses.
The Utes, having reached the halfway point of conference play, entered this weekend’s series against Arizona with a record of 10-28 overall and 5-11 in the Pac-12. Two seasons removed from a worst-to-first turnaround and a Pac-12 title, this season’s results raise the question of whether the program has taken a step back.
The Utes have 12 redshirt or true freshmen on the roster, six of whom have started 16 games or more this season. Utah coach Bill Kinneberg continues to perform a balancing act between demanding more from players and being mindful of their adjustment to the college game.
“It has been painful this year to have six or seven freshmen on the field at one time at times, but in the scheme of things this is really going to benefit us in a year or two from now with [Chris] Rowan, and Rykker [Tom], and Richardson and [Shea] Kramer and [Brett] Brocoff,” Kinneberg said. “The experience they’re getting is really significant for them and for us.”
The Utes lost three underclassmen pitchers in the draft on top of seven seniors lost to graduation from last season’s team. The team’s top returning power hitter, junior catcher Zack Moeller, was lost for the season before it began after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
Despite this season’s struggles, Kinneberg believes significant strides have been made in terms of overall talent in the program. Perfect Game USA ranks next year’s recruiting class as the Utes’ best since 2014.
“We’ll see on this team as it progresses and another year goes by where we’re at as far as talent level,” Kinneberg said. “I hate to compare it this year to UCLA or even to Oregon State or Stanford, but this group can grow into that, and I really like our recruiting class for next year and then two years from now. The commitments we have are outstanding.”
The Utes’ top talent, such as center fielder DaShawn Keirsey and second baseman Oliver Dunn, are among the conference’s best players, but the program needs more depth to equal the Pac-12′s most prominent programs. Kinneberg says “we’re going to get there.”
Richardson went into the weekend with a .272 batting average and tied for second in RBIs (19). He committed to the Utes in his junior year in high school and watched them win the Pac-12 the following spring.
“Seeing what the coaches can do with a group of guys was sort of special,” Richardson said. “I know we have a real special group here even though we’re all young and not having the season that we were expecting. Being able to grow with everybody and be at that level again and win the Pac-12 in a couple years is something really cool to see and be a part of.”
The Utes muddled their way through the first month of this season — Kinneberg was sidelined for 14 games due to an NCAA infraction — and started 2-17, with 11 losses by two runs or fewer.
“You can blame it on we’re young and this and that happened throughout the course of the year and the fall,” Tom said. “Honestly, we don’t have excuses. … I think that being young is a blessing.”
Tom, a Cedar City resident, transferred from the University of San Diego after the fall semester of 2016 and sat out last spring as a redshirt. He entered this weekend batting .302 with 19 RBIs (both second on the team).
While not happy with losing, Tom insists he “needed” to go through individual struggles, and he’d rather it came this season instead of as a junior.
“I just think that the guys’ mentalities now are we don’t want to lose anymore,” Tom said. “I’m not saying that we beat BYU [Tuesday] night and we’re not losing the rest of the season. We could lose the rest of the games this season or we could win the rest of the games this season. I don’t know. But I do know that what’s happened this year — the guys that are young, the guys that are old — we don’t want this to happen anymore. I think it’s going to be a mentality now. We don’t lose.”
Richardson points to that Oregon State series as an example of what the Utes can be.
“That series, the way we played it, should show people that we really are a good team and we’re going to be competitive,” he said.
Utah freshman starters
(Through 38 games)
Rykker Tom, third base, 37 starts
Matt Richardson, shortstop, 32 starts
Davis Delorefice, outfield/DH, 31 starts
Christopher Rowan, catcher, 28 starts
Shea Kramer, catcher/outfield/first base, 18 starts
Braden DeBenedictis, first base/DH, 16 starts
Brett Brocoff, pitcher, 10 starts