By Tom Blodgett
When Ann Pierson was hired in 2003 to start a softball program at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, things were a little different than they are today.
The school had been around since 1949, moving to Phoenix in 1951, and had seen its share of athletic success, including three NAIA basketball championships and a pair of alumni in the NBA, plus four NAIA baseball championships and several alums in the majors.
But those glory days had faded. The campus, once a garden spot in an older area of west Phoenix, was starting to look ragged. The athletic teams, which by then were competing in NCAA Division II, weren’t the powers they once were. Enrollment was low. Finances were shaky.
“When I started here and the school was in such a financial disarray, there were days when we didn’t know if the doors were going to be closed when we showed up to work,” Pierson said.
Though a California-based group purchased the Christian school and put it on firmer footing as a for-profit venture, the softball program’s start was humble.
There was a field, but it was up to the players to mark it and maintain it. Pierson laughs about her former players, now coaching in the high school ranks, who can change a sprinkler head at their fields because of the experience they gained at GCU. Pierson herself was painting the dugouts.
And the atmosphere? Well, at practices you could hear dogs barking from a nearby animal shelter.
But the program showed promise from the beginning, going 28-24 that first season, and since then it has blossomed. Pierson led the program to the postseason in 2010, ’12 and ’13. The school the moved its athletic program to Division I for the 2013-14 school year, joining the Western Athletic Conference.
But it came at a cost – no postseason for four years. Pierson accepted it without complaint.
“Winning the conference championship, that was our national title,” she said. “That was as high as we could go, so that’s what we set our goals for. You can sit here and think, ‘oh, I wish we could play postseason,’ but it was going to get here eventually and now it’s here.”
Indeed, it’s here with a flourish in 2018. The Antelopes are eligible for the WAC tournament for the first time and there can gain a possible berth in the NCAA Division I tournament.
The marks of the program’s arrival are everywhere. A university that once had perhaps 1,000 students just over a decade ago now has about 19,500 on campus and more than 60,000 others online.
Former players have trouble finding the softball field when they come back to practice because of new buildings, dorms and parking structures that weren’t there even in recent years. Much of the profits were poured right back into the school, and the changed feel on campus is unmistakable.
And then there’s the field itself. Grand Canyon broke ground on a new 1,200-seat stadium last year and opened it at the start of this season. The seats have backs and are shaded, especially nice considering how brutal the Arizona sun can get by late in the softball season.
There’s plenty of space in the dugouts, which Pierson no longer has to paint herself; bullpens and batting cages on both sides; a FieldTurf playing surface; improved concessions and restrooms; and an indoor press box that can accommodate TV and radio broadcasts.
To break it in, Grand Canyon hosted a tournament that included two-time defending champion Oklahoma.
“It’s a great atmosphere to play a ballgame, and especially when we had Oklahoma here, we were standing room only,” senior first baseman Bianca Boling said. “It’s awesome to play here and have all of our fans surrounding us around the field. It’s great to have a big stadium to show how great the program has become.”
That the Antelopes could bring in an opponent like Oklahoma marks another spot where you can see the change in the program: the schedule.
Gone are the who’s-thats from Division II days. In addition to the Sooners, Grand Canyon has played Stanford, Arkansas, UCLA, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio State, Cal State Fullerton and Utah. The last three lost games to the Antelopes, and GCU was competitive with the No. 4 Bruins, falling 7-6, a game that junior shortstop Shea Smith called a “really good confidence booster.”
“Obviously we would want the win, but I think we were just super pumped up after playing them because we made a name for ourselves against a team like that,” Smith said. “I think teams, those bigger teams, are starting to know us better just from what we’ve done in the past.
“But getting to play against UCLA for the first time and they got to see us at one of our best games, that was a super awesome feeling. … I think it made a statement to them too.”
Still ahead: a three-game series with Arizona, sandwiched between the WAC regular season and tournament. Next year, the Wildcats and Sooners will be back, and Florida State also is on the docket.
A schedule dotted with good teams and even powerhouses was not an act of foolhardiness, but rather done with intention. Pierson said they hoped their RPI would be high enough to get an at-large berth, regardless of whether they were hot or not the weekend of the conference tournament.
And for the players, well, it gives them a taste of everything they wanted from playing Division I softball.
“We get to play the big D-I schools,” Smith said. “It’s not like you’re not getting good Pac-12 competition because we play teams in the Pac-12, SEC, Big Ten. We play those teams. You get the big Division I experience, even if it’s a smaller Division I school. But I don’t think it’s going to be that much smaller for that much longer.”
The RPI plan isn’t working exactly as planned. Though Grand Canyon has taken a few of those schools, the opponents haven’t all had the season that was expected of them. Furthermore, the Antelopes left a few games out there that may have rightfully expected to be in the win column.
The result is a 21-20 record and a No. 157 ranking in RPI – a long way from an at-large berth. A 2-3 start in conference play hasn’t helped, either.
Boling said she still believes the tough schedule will pay dividends.
“We have a hard non-conference schedule to prepare us for our conference schedule, so that we can be on the field with the best of the best and then be able to take that into the WAC,” she said.
Boling said the team just needs to shore some little things up to get the consistency it needs to win more games.
The Antelopes will need to do it quickly, however. The meat of the conference schedule has arrived.
Grand Canyon hosts defending conference champion New Mexico State for a three-game series, starting with a Friday doubleheader. The Antelopes then travel to Seattle University for a three-game series April 20-21.
While Grand Canyon was picked by conference coaches to win the WAC this year in their preseason poll, New Mexico State and Seattle were right behind in the Nos. 2 and 3 spots. And those two teams rank above GCU in the conference standings at present.
Seattle, in fact, played impressively well at the Kajikawa Classic in crosstown Tempe against top-flight competition on the weekend that Grand Canyon was opening its stadium.
Smith said her team is excited to play New Mexico State as the Aggies are their conference rival and the teams always play a good series. She also notes that Seattle has “come out of nowhere” the past couple years to present a challenge.
Boling, who is from Phoenix, and Smith, from nearby Waddell, Arizona, indicated moving up to Division I was more of a bonus to them than decisive in their recruiting choice. Pierson and the campus were bigger factors, but also the opportunity to play close to home.
That last part may be critical in sustaining Grand Canyon’s success. When it moved up, Grand Canyon became only the third Division I program in Arizona. The other two, Arizona State and Arizona, are elite powerhouses with multiple national championships. Both recruit several players from Arizona, but more so from California and other states.
Still, Arizona has a thriving club softball scene, thanks in part to the weather making the sport a year-round one in the state. ASU and UA’s successes also have made softball popular locally.
As a result, Arizona has produced top prospects for years, and players from the state dot rosters all over the country, including many national powers.
While Pierson also recruits from out of state, she said if she can get the same results from an Arizona kid as one from another state, she prefers to take the player from home. And at home, she sees a wide array of talent.
“We’re wearing shorts in January and still playing outside,” she said. “We get kids that don’t know what a field house is, so that’s a good thing. They don’t know what a tarp is for. I like staying home with Arizona kids. Kids can live 45 minutes away, but they can move on to campus and still get the campus experience without having to leave the state or go across the country.”
But now is the payoff. Smith said the team doesn’t want to have the mentality of turning it on for the conference tournament. Pierson agreed, but ultimately earning a postseason berth is the goal.
“To say you want to win a national championship, it’s daunting in any sport because those are really hard to come by,” Pierson said. “But at this point we’ve got to get ourselves into regionals first and then we can figure it out from there.”