ACU Wildcats fearless in taking on nation’s best in baseball

Abilene Christian is making its way from Division II into Division I in one of the toughest college baseball states in the country — Texas. The Wildcats, befitting their name, aren’t taking a tentative approach.

2014 was ACU’s first season at the Division I level. That year they went 18-36, and in 2015 a virtually identical 17-38. Obscured by the overall records is a considerable accomplishment; ACU more than doubled their Southland Conference wins, from six in 2014 to 13 in 2015. Clearly, the heavy scheduling outside the conference is paying off within the Southland Conference.

“The NCAA puts you on a four-year transition period where you can't go to the playoffs. In my mind I'm looking at is as ‘'Well, we’re going to play the best teams we can find, so we can get our coaching staff ready to play at that level and our players ready to play at that level,’” said Wildcats’ head coach Britt Bonneau. Bonneau enters his 20th season at ACU this year.

“We’ve been very aggressive to go out and try to find Top 20 teams in the country that would play us,” he added.

There’s another benefit of taking on well-known opponents outside the conference — ACU is finding its way onto the national baseball map at the Division I level. “We want to play teams that are in the College World Series every year and are going to be in the Regionals,” said Bonneau, alluding to the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

In 2015, the Wildcats proved they could compete with anyone. ACU endured four one-run losses to Top 20 teams, including TCU, Texas Tech, and twice to Texas A&M. Despite the losses, the Wildcats are assuming a place in conversations alongside the country’s most competitive programs, thanks to the close decisions. Each of those teams returns to Abilene’s schedule this spring.

ACU closed out the 2015 season with a signature win over Arizona in their second-to-last game of the season. They then beat Hawaii, 7-4, to finish the year on a high note.

With the postseason restriction, Bonneau uses the big games to sell the program to potential recruits. “We can sell the school — that’s easy,” said Bonneau. “But how do we sell our baseball program? So I scheduled some of the greatest games [against top teams], that if they come they’ll get to be a part of that.”

Crutcher Scott Field, ACU’s home stadium, was upgraded substantially in the offseason. "We have one of the greatest facilities around. Out here in West Texas, we've had a drought. We need to get out there and play every day on a surface that can perform. So we felt that we had to turf the field," he said.

The university spent $1.2 million to improve the facility, replacing the surface and moving the outfield fences in 10 feet, while adding MLB-caliber padding along them.

“Our field is set in a way that the wind blows in from right field. And I want to be able to recruit hitters. In our old [pre-renovation] ballpark, I didn't feel like I could. Especially at the Division I level, I wanted to make sure that when a kid hits the ball hard, he gets credit for it,” said Bonneau.

The Wildcats’ leader wasn’t concerned that ACU created a band box in the process.

“Most of the parks that we’re going to play in are very similar in dimensions to what ours is now,” he added.

The Wildcats return a pitching staff with plenty of work on their resume, including at the higher capacity parks that accompany high-level competition.

“I feel like we have guys that will now be comfortable playing at this level. The thing we had to learn was how to play in these ballparks with 5,000-6,000 fans and not be in awe,” said Bonneau. “We have enough guys on the team that have been around a couple of years, and we’ll go into certain bigger parks and it’s going to be a familiar place for us.”

As far as goals in the absence of a postseason, capturing a regular-season Southland championship is one of them. “That’s going to be our No. 1 goal,” said Bonneau.

Garrett deMeyere, a 5-11 senior right-hander from Benbrook, Texas, worked extensively during the past two years and notched a victory over Arizona in both 2014 and 2015. Sophomore Drew Hanson worked 49.1 innings in 2015, made six starts, and will return as a veteran hand this season. Senior closer Nick Palacios made 26 appearances last year, notching a 2-1 mark and a 2.81 ERA.

In Bonneau’s tenure dating back to the Division II days, speed has been featured at the top of the lineup with no lack of big hitters in the middle. “We’re trying to get back to that,” he said. “We have a lot of freshmen this year that are going to play. They’re very fast. They’re going to change the game for us.”

Asked if he would try to play a “smaller” variety of baseball given the turf infield, speed in the lineup, and experienced arms, Bonneau said, laughing, “I think you’ve got to use those things, but the kids in Texas still like to swing the bat.”

Above: The Southland Conference is among college baseball’s most competitive mid-major conferences. (Courtesy Abilene Christian Athletics)
Middle: ACU is keeping company with Texas and the country's best teams, such as TCU. (Courtesy Abilene Christian Athletics)

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