Following Dallas Baptist’s super regional-clinching 8-5 victory over Oregon State at the Fort Worth Regional Monday, Patriots head coach Dan Heefner said it all in five words.
“We feel like we’ve arrived,” the head coach, in his 14th year at the helm of the program, said postgame.
He continued: “[We] really felt like we have a team that we don’t have to overachieve to win a regional. It’s a belief.”
Dallas Baptist has arrived indeed, and will go toe-to-toe against Virginia in Columbia, South Carolina beginning on Saturday. Despite 40-win seasons for each of the last seven years, the Patriots last reached the second weekend of postseason play in 2011, when they fell two games to zero against Cal.
Part of the lack of super regional berths has been the challenging regionals Dallas Baptist has been placed in during the last four tournaments. Heefner’s team was sent to Lubbock in 2016, Fort Worth in 2017, Fayetteville in 2018 and back to Lubbock in 2019. Playing against the consistent talent of power conference programs like Arkansas, Texas Tech, and TCU makes it all the more difficult to notch the upset bid and win the regional, but despite the odds, the Patriots have become a mid-major that cannot be counted out come tournament time.
This year’s Selection Monday was no different from the last four for Dallas Baptist, as it was sent to Fort Worth once again, to face a stacked field that featured Big 12 Champion TCU, and three-time national champion Oregon State. Even Southland Conference challenger McNeese State was unable to be overlooked, and kept in step with the Beavers for seven full innings in Saturday’s elimination game.
But this season, things turned out a little differently for Dallas Baptist.
Displaying a knack for pulling out wins in one and two-run games, the Patriots slid past the Beavers by a score of 6-5 in the regional opener on Friday. Dallas Baptist never trailed in the contest, and a combined effort from relievers Peyton Sherlin and Kragen Kechely held Oregon State scoreless for the final three innings.
That victory set up a must-see matchup against TCU on Saturday evening, and the contest did not disappoint in parity and clutch moments. Considering the two universities were playing very close to home, a large crowd of both Dallas Baptist and TCU supporters turned out for a game that college baseball fans across the country kept an eye on. Official attendance surpassed 5,000, tallied at 5,003, and the crowd was energetic for the entirety of the game.
By the time six innings had been completed, it appeared as if the storyline from years past surrounding Dallas Baptist was coming to life once again. TCU led 6-2 and had only widened the margin since DBU’s two-run second inning. The Patriots had won once in Fort Worth, but did they have the depth to stay in the winner’s bracket?
A second wind appeared from Dallas Baptist just as this question seemingly rose to the surface, as the lineup found its rhythm en route to a five-run seventh. The Patriots took a 7-6 lead.
It was an incredible rally for a team that had placed just one runner in scoring position since the second inning. The highlight of the comeback, and perhaps the entire game, was no doubt the play that gave Dallas Baptist the lead.
With one out, Christian Boulware swung on a 2-1 pitch, driving it hard into the left-center field gap for a bases-clearing double that brought three runs across the plate as the stands erupted into a mass of cheers and frustration, depending on which fan base you observed.
A rematch with Oregon State loomed in Sunday’s regional final, as the Beavers upset TCU 6-2 to eliminate the Horned Frogs from their own regional. That momentum carried Oregon State into a hard-fought battle against Dallas Baptist.
The Patriots took an early 2-0 lead in the top of the first before Oregon State cut it in half in the bottom of the frame and eventually took a 4-3 advantage heading into the top of the ninth. Once again, Dallas Baptist’s bats rose to the occasion as Jackson Glenn singled up the middle with two outs to bring Ryan Wrobleski home and tie the score. However, Oregon State’s Garret Forrester responded with a big moment of his own, swatting a walk-off home run in the bottom of the inning to force a crucial game seven.
The regional final rematch was contested on Monday afternoon and lived up to expectations considering the nature of the previous two meetings between the opponents.
Oregon State jumped out to a 5-0 lead by the third inning, but Dallas Baptist stayed true to form, and out of the deficit came perhaps the biggest moment of the regional.
In the seventh, with the Beavers still in front 5-2, Andrew Benefield connected on the first pitch of his at-bat to hit a home run that will forever be remembered in DBU program history. The outfielder drove the pitch from Oregon State reliever Joey Mundt over the left field wall for a grand slam that put the Patriots in the lead by a score of 6-5. With one swing of the bat, the tide turned and Dallas Baptist was on the path to the second weekend of the tournament.
"It's surreal, this is why I wanted to come to college so I could experience moments like this” -Andrew Benefield
"It's surreal, this is why I wanted to come to college so I could experience moments like this,” Benefield said of the grand slam. “I was just looking [for the] heater out over the plate. I thought he was going to work away but it missed over the plate and I just turned on. I just stuck to our approach and it worked out. It's such a blessing being here at DBU. I love every guy in this dugout."
A look at the number of fans in the stands wearing the blue and red of DBU was a window into the culture of baseball found at the once-NAIA powerhouse.
In a unique situation, baseball is the only Division I program at DBU, with the rest of the Patriot athletic programs competing at the Division II level. As a result, baseball has a tremendous following at the university, which enrolls 5,139 students.
But the strong support for baseball at DBU goes far beyond the Division I status. It is the consistent success produced by the program year in and year out. While this is the second trip to super regionals for the Patriots, they have been taking down so-called power conference opponents since making their Division I debut as an independent in 2004. During this regular season alone, the Patriots defeated Missouri and Oklahoma at the Frisco Classic, and went 6-4 against teams that reached the NCAA Tournament.
“They've done a great job of building a program,” Oklahoma coach Sunny Golloway told The Oklahoman in 2012. “They've had some good players, but nobody knows about them. They're really good. And they have been.”
Dallas Baptist has come a long way since the 2012 season, when it reached the Waco Regional and posted a 41-19 record in the program's final season as an independent. It is still a mid-major program playing in the Missouri Valley Conference, but the Patriots are far from obscure, having reached 10 straight NCAA tournaments and posted a top-two finish in conference play during all seven seasons in the MVC.
No longer is DBU a program that just “has had some good players.” 58 draft picks have resulted under Heefner’s leadership. In other words, DBU is now on the map.
But there is one thing the Patriots have yet to accomplish: punch a ticket to Omaha. And a best-of-three series against Virginia is all that stands in the way between that goal being realized.
Resiliency might just be Dallas Baptist’s best strength. It was put on display in nearly every game of the Fort Worth Regional, especially considering three of the Patriots’ four games were decided by two runs or fewer.
"Unbelievable,” Heefner said following Monday’s win. “To win it that way was incredible. These guys have shown incredible resiliency. I'm super proud of them. They stuck with it.”