Bradley coach Elvis Dominguez provides an interesting perspective regarding the last time the Braves played in the NCAA baseball tournament.
“I was still in Cuba,” Dominguez said, chuckling.
Dominguez was 5 years old in 1968. His family didn’t come to the United States until 1971. A lot has happened to him in the years since.
He played baseball for Jim Hendry in high school in Miami, then followed him to Creighton, where Dominguez became the first member of his family to attend and graduate from college.
He worked as an assistant coach with the Bluejays for two seasons and was the head coach at Omaha Central for four seasons. He returned to Creighton as an assistant in 1993 before moving to Iowa to serve in a similar role from 1997 to 2001. His next move was to Eastern Kentucky, where he was head coach for seven seasons, before taking over the Bradley program in 2008.
During that same span, not a lot has happened with Bradley baseball. The Braves made six tournament appearances from 1950 to 1968, playing in the College World Series in 1950 and 1956.
Since the last trip to the NCAA tournament, Bradley has posted winning records in just 22 of 47 seasons and finished in the top half of the Missouri Valley standings just six times. The Braves’ closest shot at getting back to postseason play came in 1987, when they posted a program-record 41 wins.
Bradley’s success this season has pushed aside some of that frustration, a fact Dominguez came to realize after an open practice Wednesday before the Braves left for Louisville, Kentucky.
“I had alumni from the ’70s that were coming up and getting teary-eyed and choked up talking about it,” Dominguez said. “It’s all about what it means to them and to the university.”
Not to mention the players on this season’s team, many of whom took some lumps when Dominguez stuck them in the starting lineup two years ago as freshmen.
“They went through a lot of adversity and hardship,” Dominguez said. “When that happens, players can either crumble or not stick around or they get better. That’s what those kids have done.
“We don’t have that pure superstar, that guy you say is a sure first-rounder. It’s a bunch of blue-collar guys that get along and play good baseball.”
It’s been quite a season for the Braves, who were coming off a 24-27 campaign. Bradley got off to a red-hot start, winning 17 of 22 games. Among the early wins were victories over Mercer and Iowa, both of which made the NCAA tournament, and North Florida, which just missed.
The Braves went 10-11 in Valley regular-season play, losing their last five games prior to the conference tournament. They rebounded with wins over Indiana State, Evansville and No. 11 Dallas Baptist to earn a spot in the championship game, where they dropped a 5-2 decision to No. 8 Missouri State.
Bradley went into selection Monday with a 35-19 record, an RPI of 19 and an unofficial strength of schedule of 22. While some observers figured the Braves would end up on the wrong side of the bubble, Dominguez was confident his team had done enough to deserve an at-large bid.
His faith was tested during the ESPNU broadcast announcing the field. Fifteen regional brackets were filled, and Bradley’s name still hadn’t been called. The Braves had to wait until all of the other 63 teams were announced before Bradley’s name popped up on the screen as a No. 2 seed at the Louisville Regional.
“It not only came down to we were in the last regional, but we ended up being the last pick,” Dominguez said. “When you look at it after everything was all said and done, we were actually picked in the process fairly early as a No. 2 seed.
“We weren’t the 64th team to get in. We were actually in that second group of 16 as a two seed. It just made it more dramatic, kind of that stroke-of-midnight thing.”
Bradley’s selection did produce mild discontent in some college baseball circles, especially since the Braves finished below .500 in league play. Dave Heeke, chairman of the Division I baseball committee, said the Braves’ résumé was appealing.
“Their RPI was very strong, significantly strong,” he said. “They beat Iowa twice. They were third in their conference. They split with Dallas Baptist. They had 24 road wins.
“They were a team we felt that was very worthy. We talked about their conference record. We talked about a number of things, but at the end of the day, we thought they were very much a team that should be in the field.”
Bradley’s selection reinforces what previous committees have been telling schools from mid-major conferences: winning games against a challenging schedule can be a ticket to the tournament.
When Dominguez put together Bradley’s schedule, he wondered if it might be too challenging. His players then went out and won 17 of 22 before the Braves even played a home game.
“Once we got on a roll, it became contagious,” Dominguez said. “By the time we got home to play, we were a pretty good ballclub.”
Bradley’s 35 wins are tied for the fourth most in program history, while its 24 road wins rank fifth and its eight shutouts eighth nationally.
Most of the Braves’ other numbers aren’t jaw-dropping. They rank 62nd in fielding, 131st in ERA, 161st in scoring and 243rd in batting average.
“We don’t have guys teams pitch around,” Dominguez said. “But our nine-hole hitter is a guy that can beat you when the game is on the line. He’s not going to do it every day, but he’s done it on the days we needed him.
“Somebody is always coming through for us. We’ve had guys come out of nowhere to do the job for us.”
Bradley will need that trend to continue as it starts regional play. The Braves’ opening game comes Friday against Michigan, the Big Ten tournament champion. Louisville, the No. 3 national seed, opens against Morehead State.
Louisville is gunning for its third straight trip to Omaha.
“This is like being in a poker game knowing you have a good hand, but everyone else does, too,” Dominguez said. “It all boils down to playing your best baseball. If you don’t, you’re going home.
“The thing is, you don’t want to beat yourself. You can’t afford mistakes. Everything is going to be high-pressured, and it’s all going to boil down to the team that executes in all aspects of the game.”
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