Tommy Jew’s heart was won the year that all felt lost with UCSB baseball.
The 2017 Gauchos were mired in last place in the Big West Conference, losing more games than during any season in the previous 15 years, when their star centerfielder made the most solid connection of his life.
Jew and his new girlfriend, UCSB track and field star Hope Bender, helped each other through the most trying season of their collegiate lives – and it’s led them now to the cusp of their most important week.
Jew will make his NCAA playoff debut tonight when the Big West champion Gauchos play Fresno State at 7 o’clock at the Stanford Regional. Bender, a Big West champion in her own right, is headed for Austin, Tex. to compete at next week’s NCAA Outdoor Championships where she’s ranked third in the heptathlon and sixth in the 400 hurdles.
“We’re pretty competitive, and we’re even pretty competitive with each other,” said Jew, a three-year starter in the heart of UCSB’s outfield. “If she’s doing something, I’ve got to be doing something … If I’m doing something, she’s got to be doing something.
“But at the end of the day, we’re pretty proud of each other. It’s fun to see her do so well.”
While Jew was losing games two years ago, Bender was about to lose her calling. After a string of disappointing performances, one of the Gaucho coaches suggested that she give up the heptathlon to focus just on hurdle events.
“I couldn’t give it up,” she said. “I had to keep going. I was like, ‘No, no! Give me another chance! I promise this is going to be special!’
“Tommy and I have been through the ups and downs. He was there when I had that bad sophomore season, so we’ve definitely been through it. It’s been great to have each other like that.”
Baseball, Jew was quick to note, is a sport in which frustration can easily fester.
“You often keep a lot inside,” he said. “You definitely need an outlet, and she’s been an incredible outlet for me. My parents (Dave and Jeanette) have been that, too, but I could see her every day.
“She’s an athlete, too, which is huge. She understands that things aren’t always going to go your way … She was always there, saying, ‘Keep your head up … Keep your confidence … Keep doing it, and you’ll figure it out.’ I always make sure to help her out, too, and I know she has my back.”
Jew’s first frustration came as a freshman when coach Andrew Checketts sidelined him as a redshirt so he could make the transition from high school shortstop to collegiate outfielder.
“He was young for his grade, and a little behind defensively,” Checketts explained. “It was hard for him. He was used to playing and kind of being the star. It’s hard for guys when that happens, especially when you’re on that ’16 team … and you don’t get to go to the World Series.
“So I’m excited for him to have the chance to go back and lead a team this time.”
Jew was alone, watching TV from his family’s couch, when classmate Sam Cohen put UCSB into the 2016 College World Series by hitting a walk-off, grand-slam home run off Louisville All-America closer Zack Burdi. It quickly became the No. 1 play on ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10.
“I threw the remote, jumped around, ran around the room … It was pretty incredible,” he said. “He was one of my best friends at that point, and to watch him do it was pretty surreal.
“After about 10 minutes, though, I realized that I wasn’t going to be there with my teammates.”
His emotions swirled in a unique brew of happiness, sadness … and motivation.
“All those older guys were incredible mentors,” Jew said. “I wouldn’t be here without them, and without what they taught me, and I try to teach the younger guys what they taught me, as well.”
He was one of UCSB’s few bright spots in 2017, batting .295 as a redshirt freshman. He put together a 17-game hitting streak and ranked second on the team with 30 RBIs and nine stolen bases.
Jew’s empowerment grew that summer when he batted .328 with eight homers in 32 games for the Mystic Schooners to win most valuable player honors in the Northeast Collegiate Baseball League.
“He’s got sneaky pop, a whippy bat,” Checketts said of his wiry, 6-foot-1 centerfielder. “When he hits it, he’s got some juice. He’s always had some snap in the bat … Some swing and miss early when he was young, but his pitch recognition has gotten better over his career and now he chases less.”
Jew won All-Big West first team honors last year when he batted .312 with five homers, 41 RBIs, and 12 stolen bases.
And yet, the Gauchos suffered through another losing season.
“The last couple of years we were super-talented, and I think we realized that talent doesn’t get you to the regional … It doesn’t get you to Omaha,” Jew said. “We realized we had to become a team and find our identity.
“The older guys were huge about that this year. Besides the seniors and the super-senior – Old Man Tom (Thomas Rowan) – we have a lot of juniors, as well. They’ve seen what it takes and they’ve seen what it doesn’t take, in a sense. The coaches have been huge, too. I think the whole unit has finally come together.”
Jew enters NCAA play tonight with a .282 average, 11 homers, 39 RBIs, 49 runs scored, and 20 stolen bases in 23 attempts. His outfield play has improved so much that Checketts nominated him for Big West Defensive Player of the Year honors.
He made the play of the year on April 12 against then-No. 15 UC Irvine, running and then leaping to rob Brendan Brooks of what would’ve been a game-tying home run in the eighth inning. The Gauchos continued on to a 4-1 victory and a three-game sweep, propelling them to their first league title since 1986.
“He’s always played fast … He runs, he plays hard, he gets after it,” Checketts said. “When we moved him to the outfield, it was a little rough early, but he was able to pick it up because he’s so athletic.
“He’s turned into a plus-defender. His baserunning instincts have been good, too … He’s been coachable on that stuff. The stuff he’s had to get better at, he’s learned.”
Jew has been a centerpiece for a 45-9 team which set a school record for victories. And his girlfriend has been with him the entire way.
“Gaucho athletics is kind of exploding this year,” Bender said. “It’s been super-cool to be a part of it. It’s been an honor and a blessing to be there, alongside the baseball team as they’ve exceeded expectations this year, and then basketball doing so well, as well as tennis.
“It’s just been super-fun and a great community to be part of.”
She didn’t want to miss anything while competing in the Big West Conference Track and Field Championships at UCSB’s Pauley Track three weeks ago. She rushed to Caesar Uyesaka Stadium in between events to watch Jew and the Gauchos sweep Long Beach State of a three-game series.
“I don’t get to see her during the games, but I know she tries to sneak over, whether it’s during meets or practices, and I try to do the same,” Jew said. “They had multiple home meets this year, and I got to go to one of them, which was pretty cool.”
Bender did chide him about missing the Big West Championships. She won Athlete of the Meet honors after taking first place in the heptathlon, the long jump and the 400-meter hurdles in a meet-record time of 56.64.
“I’m like, ‘You can’t come watch when you’re 150 yards away?'” she said with a laugh. “But he’s close enough, I guess. He could hear it on the loudspeaker.
“When I’m on the track, I’ll hear them announce his name at their games, and then I’ll listen for the ‘Olé, olé, olé, olé’ … When I hear that, I’m like, ‘Home run!'”
It reminds her of how far they’ve both come while going full circle.