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OREM — Utah County native and Provo High graduate Kyle Valgardson always knew he wanted to go to Utah Valley University, where he hoped for a spot on the baseball team as a walk-on in 2012 and just wanted a chance to make the program better.
The relief pitcher saw the program take a dramatic step forward Monday.
Valgardson and the Western Athletic Conference Tournament champion Wolverines heard their names called Monday during the NCAA baseball selection show, pairing the NCAA Tournament debutantes against host No. 8 Louisiana State in the Baton Rouge Regional on June 3 at 1 p.m. MDT on ESPN3.
“I knew this would be where I would end up, and I was hoping I could play a little and make the program better,” said Valgardson, the the program's career saves leader who finished offUVU’s 4-0 win over Seattle in the WAC tournament final. “It’s been a great opportunity to be in the role I’ve been in, to help my teammates to become better and to really progress the program.”
The winner of Utah Valley and LSU will face the winner of Southeastern Louisiana and Rice in the double-elimination regional format. The champion of the Baton Rouge site will advance to next week’s Super Regional against the winner of the Raleigh Regional featuring North Carolina State, Saint Mary’s, Navy and Coastal Carolina.
The Wolverines (37-21) aren’t taking lightly the historic shot at the NCAA Regional, and there are few better ways to break in the tourney than against one of the premiere teams from the SEC in LSU (42-18).
The school, players say, represents college baseball to the ESPN generation.
“It’s a big-name school,” UVU infielder Jordan Schlehuber said. “As a baseball fan and a college baseball fan growing up, you see these games on TV and it seems like LSU is always in it. It’s going to be a great experience to go there and play.”
Valgardson echoed his teammate.
“LSU is college baseball in most of our eyes,” he said. “They were the team to beat when most of these kids were in high school and middle school. We’ve heard all the stories about the crazy LSU fans — it’s going to be really exciting.”
The Tigers, of course, aren’t unbeatable — and Utah Valley knows it. LSU hosted fellow WAC foe Sacramento State in February, and though the Tigers took the three-game series, the Hornets picked off a 5-4 upset win Feb. 27.
The Wolverines, for their part, have owned a couple of big games, too. This is a team that swept Pac-12 champion Utah in a three-game series, stunned then-No. 5 Oregon State 12-5 in February and took a three-game series 2-1 with Minnesota.
“They’ve played well all year, and we’ve never really had a bad run,” Utah Valley coach Eric Madsen said. “We’ve competed the whole year, and we’re playing great right now. It gives us a great chance.”
Madsen and associated head coach Dave Carter have been together in Orem for eight seasons, and the duo has seen plenty of ups and downs with the program. The last time Utah Valley was expecting an NCAA Tournament bid, the 47-win team’s hopes were dashed in 2012 because they didn’t play in an automatic qualifying conference.
LSU is college baseball in most of our eyes. They were the team to beat when most of these kids were in high school and middle school. We’ve heard all the stories about the crazy LSU fans — it’s going to be really exciting.
–UVU relief pitcher Kyle Valgardson
The hard work, sacrifice and missed opportunities paid off Monday with the program’s first-ever NCAA berth, and the second for a men’s team in Utah Valley history (after last fall’s men’s soccer tourney bid).
“The 2012 team was as special of a group as I’ve been with, and they should be celebrating this as much as everybody,” Madsen said. “They did a lot for us, and I think our kids knew with how much we speak about that.
“It’s been a long road, and we’re excited that we get this chance.”