Creighton’s players have definitely allowed themselves to visualize what it’d feel like to clinch a conference title on their home field.
They’ve thought some about the possible outcomes beyond this week, too.
Winning the Big East tournament for the first time. Snapping a seven-year NCAA regional drought. Certainly, they’ve daydreamed about the same ultimate goal that every team sets: making a historic run to the CWS.
But in this sport, you have to earn the right to dogpile.
And especially at this time of year, the teams that find themselves celebrating are usually the ones that best handle the hype, and the hope, and the gravity of the moment.
The Jays (33-11, 12-4) passed their initial test Thursday at TD Ameritrade Park, but they had to withstand a few tense innings first. They ultimately pulled away for a convincing 10-1 win against Villanova and moved into a tie with Xavier (23-28, 12-4) atop the Big East standings.
“I think our players have to learn to play with that (pressure) because that’s how it’s going to be in the conference tournament,” CU coach Ed Servais said. “And if we’re fortunate to move on, that’s what they’re going to see. We’ve got to get more comfortable in these uncomfortable situations.”
That’s partially what this week is about. Preparation.
But there’s more at stake. If Creighton avoids a defeat to the Wildcats (13-36, 4-11), it clinches a regular-season crown and solidifies its candidacy as an NCAA regional at-large team.
So, the next loss comes with a cost. That’s the reality now — and it can sometimes weigh on ballclubs in late May.
Early on Thursday, perhaps, the Jays weren’t able to quite settle in because of that.
“We had the bases loaded a couple times early and you could tell the guys were fighting it a little bit,” Servais said. “I hope that a game like this can get them to relax from the get-go (Friday).”
Senior right-hander Mitch Ragan provided a blueprint.
His masterful outing kept Creighton from digging itself any sort of hole Thursday. In his first six innings of work, he struck out nine batters, faced just one three-ball count and surrendered two hits — both were two-out singles. Ragan pitched into the eighth and left to a boisterous ovation from the 1,677 fans in attendance.
And, eventually, the Jays’ offense came alive.
They erupted for three runs in the seventh inning and four more in the eighth. Sophomore Will Hanafan delivered a two-out, two-run single. Junior Jake Holton homered for the 13th time this year, and sophomore David Vilches launched his second.
Those late-game swings are what Creighton hitters hope to re-create Friday.
It starts with their mentality. They want to be focused and determined — because you have to be. But they’re also looking to find a balance, so that the critical moments don’t get too overwhelming.
“Coach preaches have fun and enjoy it. And soak it all in when you can,” Vilches said. “We’re trying to play every game like it’s our first game — with all the enthusiasm and energy we had to open the season. As long as you have fun and compete, you can’t go wrong.”
CU and Villanova will play again at 6:30 p.m. Friday.