Aztecs roll into NCAA Tournament with a Hall of Fame presence

SDSU Aztecs baseball coach Tony Gwynn

A certain bobble head? Check.

A batch of jelly beans? Got it.

Tony Gwynn’s vibe? Please.

San Diego State faces UC Santa Barbara in the NCAA Regional on Friday, with a former baseball coach on their mind.

“His presence is always here,” SDSU starter, Bubba Derby said. “And it’s going to be like that for the next 100 years.”

What a year it’s been for the Aztecs.

Of course they lost their beloved leader, Gwynn, to cancer last summer. But to this day, they don’t charge the field without him.

Or didn’t you notice that Gwynn bobble head in the dugout? He’s rocking his red-and-black SDSU uniform from his Montezuma Mesa playing days.

The jelly beans signify Gwynn’s favorite snack. And yes, wouldn’t everyone love to see him digging around for his preferred color. That would be as sweet as the treats Gwynn’s craved.

“We carry around his bobble head everywhere we go and that’s just to keep his presence around,” Derby said. “And to have his presence calms us. It’s like a fatherly figure with us; he’s always with us.”

That includes Friday when the Aztecs, winners of 40 games for the second consecutive season, try to claim their first NCAA regional game at The Diamond at Lake Elsinore.

“I think we have a good shot of going all the way,” Derby said. “Every team’s thinking the same thing right now. It’s a matter of being confident. I think our team has a lot of confidence going into this regional right now.”

The Aztecs will be backed by belief, Gwynn and a load of SDSU boosters.

“It can become a home game for us,” coach Mark Martinez said. “We’re hoping for a lot of San Diego State fans and for The Show to be there.”

SDSU backers, loud and proud, is what Martinez seeks as he puts another thrilling Mountain West Conference Tournament behind him. The Aztecs won their third straight MW title — after losing their opening tournament game — to punch their Lake Elsinore ticket.

“I had tears on Sunday,” Martinez said of the MW final. “I was wishing Tony was there and that he could hold up the trophy.”

The Aztecs steadied themselves after the devastating loss of Gwynn. Much credit goes to Martinez, an assistant who took Gwynn’s position, for keeping the SDSU train on track.

“I know the relationship coach Martinez had with coach Gwynn,” Derby said. “They were like brothers. Coach Martinez learned so much from the way coach Gwynn did everything, it’s almost as if coach Gwynn never left. Nothing’s really changed.

“Coach Martinez does a great job with us, pushing us every day and making sure that we’re doing things right everywhere we go.”

That was Gwynn’s pet phrase — doing things right — and right now, the Aztecs are doing it.

The squad that Gwynn recruited and developed is one he would embrace. And his reaction to SDSU advancing to the NCAAs?

“I think he would have laughed, and I think he would have made everyone else laugh because of his laugh,” Derby said. “I know he’s proud of us. I know he’s looking down on us right now smiling, just knowing we have the opportunity to go a very long way.”

Derby couldn’t vouch for Gwynn’s Internet connection in heaven. Let’s just say Gwynn is up-to-speed about his Aztecs.

“I know he knows we’re doing this for him,” Derby said. “We say, ‘play for the pile, play for coach Gwynn, win for Gwynn,’ and that’s the thought we go into every day. It is dog-piling and knowing we’re doing it for him.”

They’ll do so with Gwynn’s bobble head jiggling in the dugout, a bag of jelly beans and a heart that remains a tad heavy.

“It’s been a trying time for us since last summer,” Martinez said. “We’ve all grown and evolved with dealing with coach Gwynn’s loss.”
What would Gwynn say?

“Never give up, it doesn’t matter what’s going on,” Derby said. “Pull for your own guys, do things right and good things are going to happen.”
+ Contact Jay Paris at jparis@bcaradio.com and follow him on Twitter at @jparis_sports.

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