As the NCAA Baseball Tournament Selection Show dragged on Monday on ESPN2, Santa Clara head coach Rusty Filter was hoping his team would get to stay out West.

But instead the Western Athletic Conference Tournament champs got send to Arkansas’ Baum-Walker Stadium, which Filter considers the second best option available.

“Initially, we knew we were in and we had to sit through the presentation show of where we would go,” Filter said. “We had to wait for the final one (of 16 Regional announcements). I thought there was a possibility that they would keep us out West (at Stanford), but there weren’t too many options.

“So I had told my team that I hope we get the most amazing experience available in college baseball and I believe that this is that place. So we are excited to be here and we are looking forward to competing and showing the country what Bronco baseball is all about.”

Fourth-seeded Santa Clara (35-18) will indeed get that opportunity when it plays No. 3 national seed Arkansas (41-16) Friday at 2 p.m.

Friday’s other Regional game will see second-seeded TCU (37-22) and third-seeded Arizona (33-24) at 8 p.m.

Arizona’s head coach is Chip Hale – a former coach with Major League Baseball’s Oakland A’s while TCU is guided by former Oakland A’s pitcher Kirk Sarloos.

“You have got the number three national seed in the country that’s had a really good season in the SEC,” Filter said. “You have got another team in TCU, who we went and played three games at their place last year.

“A really strong history out West  in Arizona…I think they are playing very well getting to their conference tournament final.

“So I think the field is very strong.”

But Filter thinks he has a senior-laden squad that is ready to compete with those three schools.

“We are super excited to be here in Fayetteville,” Filter said. “I am super proud of my team – the Santa Clara Broncos. We finished the season playing pretty good baseball. We had to win our way here.

“We finished the season, I think our last 20 games that we were 17-3.  Two winning streaks  – one of nine games and one of eight games currently.”

Santa Clara roared through its four games in the WAC Tournament, outscoring foe Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and Portland (twice) by a score differential of 42-8.

It ended a drought that extended back to 1997, the year Santa Clara was last in the NCAA Tournament. 

“I couldn’t be prouder of these guys,” Filter said. “We’ve been through a lot. It has been 26 years since Santa Clara has been in the postseason play.

“We addressed that from day one when we started. This senior class, I am very proud of. It was our first recruiting class and we are excited for the opportunity to come play baseball and experience this great environment.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Santa Clara senior outfielder Michael O’Hara  and junior pitcher Skylar Hales.

“I personally can’t wait, man,” O’Hara said. “I’m an outfielder so I know there is going to be a good about of people out there with something to say. 

“But so far, people down here have been nothing but nice. I have played in some big games in my life, but 10 or 11,000 will be new, but it is also so exciting. I just can’t wait to get out there to be honest with you .”

Hales is one of four Santa Clara pitchers along with Jared Feikes, Brandon Gomez, and Blake Hammond that all have a team-leading six wins.

Hales also has six saves and fellow reliever August Souza five.

“This is the moment that we have dreamed of since we were little kids,” Hales said. “Playing at the highest level you can and that crowd intensity just really puts you in the moment. It’s surreal and we are just super excited and looking forward to it.”

Filter lauded Hales and O’Hara.

“These are two guys that epitomize kind of what we are all about,” Filter said. “It is a team-first mentality. We don’t have one on the first-team All-Conference team. We got three on the second team and a bunch of honorable mentions.”

First baseman Efrain Manzo was one of those honorable mention selections after hitting .321 this season and blasting 17 homers, 15 more than he had his first two years combined.

Senior right handed pitcher Cole Kitchen (3-2, 4.14, 15 starts in 16 appearances and a team’s leading 78 1/3 innings) will start and be opposed on the mound by Arkansas’ Hunter Hollan (8-1, .406 ERA in 77 2/3 innings).

“Cole Kitchen is a senior right-hand pitcher who has been a Friday night starter for the last thee years,” Filter said. “He has been a starting pitcher since the day he walked in. 

“When he was a freshman, he was an opener. We would go two or three times through the line up. 

“He was a two-way player, a really good athlete, left-handed hitter that we thought would be an outfielder. But his progression came pretty quick so once he really solidified that Friday role, we no longer allowed him to be a two-way player.

“He is a very competitive young man. You might hear him from the press box when he is not pitching. He is definitely a leader of the team and he will go out there and compete. I think he will handle the moment the best.”

“All year long we started stressing ‘finish, finish,’” O’Hara said. “So when we got the opportunity..we just really took it into our own hands, built that culture and finish the season off the way we felt we should.”

Photo by John D. James