At Dallas Baptist University, they’re keeping the faith that their standout baseball program will finally reach the College World Series. And for DBU, keeping the faith isn’t idle talk.

Dallas Baptist (45–14) is one of five programs in the nation—and the lone team from Texas—that will be playing in its ninth consecutive NCAA Division I baseball tournament. (The 64-team competition begins Friday, June 16, and the final eight will be invited to Omaha, Nebraska, for the College World Series.) DBU’s Patriots, who finished the regular season at number eighteen in’s rankings, will be the number two seed in the regional hosted by Oklahoma State and will open tourney play against third-seeded Washington.

DBU is a rare D-I school where baseball is the bell cow. The little private school with an enrollment of 4,348 has never fielded a football program, and its other teams compete in Division II. This year’s Patriots are only two wins behind the leader in Division I (Wake Forest) and one victory short of the program’s most since joining D-I in 2004.

Dallas Baptist has twice advanced to the second stage of NCAA tournament play, but the school has never made it beyond there to the College World Series. In Texas, the coveted trip to Omaha has typically belonged to the state’s Big 12 and SEC teams.

“It feels like we continue to do new things,” said DBU head coach Dan Heefner, whose sixteen seasons with the Patriots encompass almost all of the school’s D-I baseball glory. “There’s only one thing we haven’t done, and that’s gone to Omaha.”

The university’s Christian Baptist emphasis becomes evident to visitors within minutes of arriving at the gated southwest Dallas campus, where statues of Jesus and plaques citing Bible verses dot the pedestrian walkways. “It’s a commitment to excellence from a uniquely Christian perspective,” said school president Adam Wright, an Oak Cliff native and DBU lifer who first arrived on campus as a freshman in 1999.

The Christian element isn’t checked at the door of the baseball team’s locker room, either. The squad holds a weekly Bible study and has participated in sports missionary trips around the world, the most recent of which took place in Cuba. Bios in the baseball media guide list each player’s favorite Bible verse. Some of the staff bios cite where the person attends church.

“When you come to DBU, you get the integration of faith in everything that you do,” interim athletic director Ryon Phillips said. “The biggest responsibility that I have every day is to come mentor, disciple student-athletes and coaches and make sure they’re always pointed toward Christ.”

“We’re going to be super open about who we are in recruiting,” Heefner told me. “How does the Bible pertain to you as a college player? How does our team function? How do we relate together? It’s definitely going to attract some people, and there are going to be some that, it’s just not for them.”

Maybe no other current player can better speak about DBU baseball than senior starting pitcher Zach Heaton, who is in his sixth (and final) season with the program. “Faith—the short story is, it’s huge,” he said. “They developed me in baseball, but they developed me spiritually in more ways than I can really say.”

The school’s religious focus wasn’t the overriding factor when infielder Kodie Kolden chose to transfer from Washington State before this season. Kolden picked the Patriots because of their winning history. “I knew [faith] was a thing that I kind of wanted to explore, get more into,” said Kolden, second on the team, with a .344 batting average. “And it’s definitely changed my perspective on life in general and even baseball. It really is just a game. If you can just play your best, try your best, that mindset helped me a lot.”

The school was established in Decatur, 65 miles northwest of Dallas, in 1898 as the first junior college in Texas. It moved to its current location in 1965 and converted to a four-year institution three years later. DBU’s baseball program first made the NCAA tournament in 2008 (Heefner’s first season as head coach). Throughout the coach’s tenure, the Patriots have jumped from the Western Athletic Conference to the Missouri Valley Conference to their current home in Conference USA.

The Patriots’ best-known major leaguer is Ben Zobrist, who finished his college career at DBU in 2004 and won World Series championships with the 2015 Kansas City Royals and 2016 Chicago Cubs. Zobrist, who was named the World Series Most Valuable Player in ’16, retired in 2020 after fourteen MLB seasons.

Dallas Baptist has built its program by recruiting talent that’s been overlooked by the region’s higher-profile and deeper-pocketed programs. Heefner and his assistants seek out players who can be developed and who will fit at DBU. The baseball team does boast top-notch training facilities, located beneath the stands of ten-year-old Horner Ballpark, which seats almost 3,500 and has an all-artificial-turf playing surface—no dirt anywhere.

“We’ve got facilities that allow our players to develop,” Heefner said. “Also, they don’t have a lot of distractions.”

Another recent transfer is junior infielder-outfielder Ethan Mann, whose 78 RBIs this season are three short of DBU’s D-I record. Mann, who grew up in North Texas and made All-District as a shortstop at McKinney Boyd High School, played two seasons at Midland College and one at New Mexico State before opting to play closer to home.

North Texas has predictably been DBU’s bailiwick for recruiting. Sophomore outfielder Nathan Humphreys, the Patriots’ top hitter, at .359, is from nearby Midlothian; his father, Mike, grew up in DeSoto and played for the New York Yankees. Sometimes DBU’s recruiting efforts amount to knowing a friend of a friend. Dallas Baptist learned of Kolden from a former Patriots player who, like Kolden, also grew up in Post Falls, Idaho. Heefner and his staff heard about freshman Grant Jay from one of the catcher-outfielder’s high school teammates from Mobile, Alabama, whose father happens to be a former DBU assistant coach. Jay quickly earned a spot in the lineup and leads the Patriots with 21 home runs.

Heefner’s arrival followed a similar path. After playing first base at Northern Iowa and Olivet Nazarene University, in Illinois, Heefner was introduced to DBU’s program in the early 2000s when his brother-in-law pitched for the Patriots. Heefner landed an assistant-coaching job in 2005 and took over three years later after then–head coach Eric Newman left to join the staff at Nebraska. Heefner’s career record at DBU is 605–309–1, according to the university.

High-level assistant coaches have helped the program develop a strong reputation for player development. Current hitting coach Cliff Pennington played for Texas A&M and spent eleven seasons in the major leagues. Pitching coach Micah Posey was a minor league All-Star. Former pitching coach Wes Johnson, who is heralded throughout college and professional ball, went from DBU to Mississippi State to Arkansas to the Minnesota Twins for three-plus seasons and then back to college at LSU last June.

Maybe a program with a budget two or three times the size of DBU’s will lure Heefner away some day. Maybe not. “I think he’s driven by something a little different,” said Teddy Cahill, the primary national college writer for Baseball America. “There’s probably some aspect of him wanting to see it [qualifying for the College World Series] through. That might have more meaning than chasing a paycheck from a Big 12 school or an SEC school.”

“Faith is the top priority in his life,” said junior pitcher and Kingwood native Zane Russell. “You see that in every aspect. The way he talks. The way he runs practice. ‘How can we glorify God in what we do?’ He’s somebody I could see making me better.”

 “We tell recruits it’s all about fit,” Heefner said, “and this is the perfect fit for me.”