Patriots succeed in player development
FORT WORTH, Texas -- In 2005, Dallas Baptist was an NAIA team.
Now, two wins stand between the Patriots and the College World Series.
Dallas Baptist began play as a Division I team in 2006 and, as an independent, made its only other NCAA regional in 2008. The schedule was difficult enough for the Patriots (42-18) to snag one of the last available spots in the NCAA tournament over established powers like LSU, but once the committee granted DBU a chance, it took advantage, despite being placed in a regional with two College World Series participants from 2010, TCU and Oklahoma.
So how does a team go from the NAIA to an NCAA super regional in six years?
Excuse the linguistic liberties, but it's not complex: betterance.
"One percent betterance," said closer Chris Haney, who struck out Oral Roberts' two best hitters with two runners in scoring position and a two-run lead in the eighth inning of the Fort Worth Regional championship game. "As a smaller school and a not so big program, they've really focused on trying to get us where we're excelling 1 percent every day and we keep doing that daily throughout the season, we can surpass some other teams."
Coach Dan Heefner understands his program's limitations. Players like Texas pitcher Taylor Jungmann and Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon, two of the nation's best, aren't coming to Dallas Baptist.
Success for the Patriots isn't coming by recruiting well. It's coming by developing well.
"We have to be just totally focused on development," Heefner said. "Whatever your ceiling is, when you come in, you're here and our goal is we want to get you to that ceiling. It's an every-day thing. We say we're not going to stop having that focus until the season is over. Our mentality is if we can do that every day, we're going to pass some of these bigger programs up."
That's exactly what the Patriots have done, and as a result, they're one of the last 16 teams standing in all of college baseball, an unthinkable scenario even a decade ago. But as their name suggests, Heefner has to recruit players who fall in line with the central ideals the school is founded upon.
When Heefner came to see Haney play, and when Haney made his visit to campus, his focus wasn't baseball. It was his relationship with Christ.
"Tying faith into baseball was a huge step toward me coming to DBU, and they've been faithful to that," Haney said.
The same was true for outfielder Landon Anderson, named the MVP of the Fort Worth Regional. Anderson, a junior Christian studies major, wants to enter ministry when his playing career is done.
"Having Heef ask me questions about my spiritual walk, that was something that was a catalyst for me coming to DBU," he said.
Major programs weren't after either player, but Heefner found them, helped develop them and their teammates, and thanks to a few fortunate plays, Heefner says, the season marched on for at least another week.
"If you get hot at the right time, good things can happen," he said. "Fortunately, we got hot at the right time. You could almost pick out a specific play in each game, the Oklahoma game, the TCU game, that has really allowed us to be in this position. That's really how narrow the margin of victory is. Fortunately for us, this time we came out on top in those types of situations."
The Patriots hope a conference is in their future, something Heefner points to as the next step in building his program. But for now, he'll settle for knowing a trip to the West Coast for a weekend date with Cal is fast approaching.
What follows that? Even if it's not Omaha, this weekend could be the beginning of something special at Dallas Baptist.
"Our facilities gotten better every year, and we've seen how that's helped us get better players. We'd like to see that continue," he said. "If a conference doesn't happen for us, we're in a great place to be an independent, 2008 and then this year, to be able to make this next step, I think really adds some validity to our program and what you can do as an independent."
David Ubben covers college sports for ESPN.com.