'A big jump'
Grand Canyon prepares to make bold leap to Division I
CARY, N.C. -- Grand Canyon’s first appearance in the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship will be its last.
The school plans to make the move next year to DI competition, where it will join the Western Athletic Conference. That’ll have to wait, though, because the Antelopes aren’t done playing baseball this year.
Skippered by former major leaguer Andy Stankiewicz, Grand Canyon pounded Coker 10-2 to stay alive in the tournament. In their opener on Sunday, the 'Lopes lost a 1-0 heartbreaker to St. Edward’s.
“You don’t want to be in the loser’s bracket, ever,” Stankiewicz said. “But in a way, it’s refreshing when you know we’ve got nowhere else to go. You either show up and get after it or you’re going home.”
No matter what happens in this year’s DII tournament from here on out, the move to DI will be a momentous one for the school located in Phoenix.
“Grand Canyon’s historically been one of the better programs in the west, whether it be NAIA or Division II,” Stankiewicz said. “We feel like we’re moving in the right direction to restore that proud tradition. [The move to DI] is going to be big. Any time you jump to any division, it’s a big jump.
“It’s kind of nice to know we made it to the pinnacle of Division II before we set out for that next challenge in front of us. But it is going to be big for us because in a lot of respects, you’re talking about bigger and stronger athletes with more speed. It’s going to be a challenge.”
The move is, in fact, a major one. So the logical question is this -- why make it? The ball has been rolling for some time now, with school president Brian Mueller and athletic director Keith Baker having done “a lot to kind of make Grand Canyon a little pearl in the desert.”
“[GCU] has wanted to do it for a while,” Stankiewicz said. “The university has put a lot of money and time into this transition. We’ve got a beautiful basketball arena.
“It’s a private Christian university that’s going to be competing with the big boys. It’s a big endeavor for everybody, but it’s one the university has been actively seeking since I got here two years ago.”
In many respects, the move to DI is a business decision. On the field, it’s Stankiewicz’s job to keep moving the baseball program forward no matter what the level of competition might be. His pedigree as a big leaguer who played all or parts of seven different seasons for the Yankees, Astros, Expos and Diamondbacks helps with almost instant credibility.
That’s not to say his players treat him any differently than they would any other coach. Just because he once dug into the batter’s box at Yankee Stadium doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s some mountaintop baseball guru. To them, he’s just Coach.
“Maybe there’s a certain level of credibility that comes with having been there [in the bigs], but in the end, they just want to know that you care about them and that you want to help make them better,” Stankiewicz said. “Hopefully, we’ve been able to do that.”
During the course of his big-league career, Stankiewicz played in 429 games with a total of 203 hits, four home runs and a .241 batting average.
Randy Johnson, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens -- he faced them all. Stankiewicz was in The Show, and no one can ever take it away from him.
“It was an honor to know that you toed it up against the best players and competed,” Stankiewicz said. “Some days, you had a good at-bat. Some days, you didn’t. But the thrill of going to the batter’s box and facing some of the all-time greats, there are no words to describe it.”
After the end of his playing career, Stankiewicz managed the Yankees’ short-season single-A minor-league team in Staten Island. Before landing at Grand Canyon, he also served as an assistant coach at Arizona State.
There is, he admits, quite a difference between managing professional baseball players and coaching college athletes.
“In pro ball, especially in the lower minor leagues, it’s about development,” Stankiewicz said. “If you sign a kid to a big signing bonus, you’re going to play him. It doesn’t matter if he’s hitting .070, if there’s money invested in him, you’re going to play him.
“Here, everybody’s kind of on the same playing field regardless of whether a guy’s on a big scholarship or small scholarship. The challenge is to win and be successful on the field. You can mix and match and do some things you can’t in pro ball."