DII Baseball Championship journal: Nine days from Grand Prairie
GRAND PRAIRIE, TEXAS -- It was a Saturday. May 27, 2017, to be precise.
Eight teams walked into Grand Prairie, Texas, with championship aspirations. Nine days later, after battling the Texas heat and torrential rains, one team left with the hardware.
West Chester may be the National Champions, but there was a lot more going on this past week and a half.
Some teams surprised people just by being here.
Take St. Thomas Aquinas for example. A slow start to the season and then the dubious task of taking on one of Division II's best teams all season twice in the East Regionals left plenty of doubters just a few weeks ago.
“We started off the season 9-9," Spartans head coach Scott Muscat said. "It was not going well early in the year. We were 0-2 in the conference. Then we went on a 28-4 run. There was a lot of confidence there. Then we lost in the conference tournament and I think a lot of people counted us out. We beat the No. 1 team, scored a lot of runs off [Southern New Hampshire] in the last two games and swept the regionals. Then came here and magically won the first game, and a great game against Mesa. We finished 44-17, No. 3 in the nation. It was a great season. We have a good core of guys returning, I would not be surprised if we are back.”
Instead, the Spartans outlasted five teams in the field, going 2-0 before running into the high-power offense of UC San Diego. They were the third team left standing.
Lindenwood came into Grand Prairie having never won a DII Baseball Championship game. Though they didn't win the last game of the Championship, they rewrote the program's history books forever.
"We always said that we want to win a national championship," Lindenwood's star leadoff hitter Wes Degener said. "I think everybody can agree that we exceeded our expectations this year. I'm happy to be here. I'm a little upset to not be taking home the hardware, but it's been a great ride."
The Quincy Hawks made their first trip ever to the DII Baseball Championship. Though they didn't win a game, All-American second baseman Jake Walters left feeling rewarded.
“Being here is awesome,” Walters said. “We wanted to do more than just come here, but that didn’t work out our way. To be a part of the first-ever Quincy team to come here, is something special, I’ll remember that for the rest of my life."
You just never know what to expect when you get to the final eight teams standing. Delta State came into the tournament as the only No. 1 seed to advance through its regional. Behind one of the best offenses in DII, many felt coming out of the battle-tested South Region gave them an advantage. Despite getting one of the best pitched performances in the tournament from Tre Hobbs, the big hitting Statesmen ran into two pitchers that were arguably hotter.
"I'm certainly proud of this team," Delta State head coach Mike Kinnison said. "I'm proud of what they've accomplished. We won the regular season championship of a conference that has 12 strong teams in it. We won our regional championship which I would put up against any region in the country. We battled through a lot of things. I'm proud of what this team accomplished."
North Georgia came into the tournament scoring more runs than any other team in DII with an astounding total of 515. They had three starting pitchers with ERAs below three. The team won its first regional championship, and achieved the school's first No. 1 national ranking. Yet they couldn't win a game in this tough field.
“You know there are a lot of guys who aren’t seniors that had a lot to do with this, obviously,” pitcher Dylan Peppers said. “But our 10 or 11 seniors, we had a big impact. I think our legacy is going to be pretty good. All year, we played to our full ability.”
Colorado Mesa came into Grand Prairie with one of the most prolific offenses in the whole tournament, led by big-hitting Bligh Madris and Kyle Serrano. While they were able to manufacture runs, they also were involved in some of the best pitching duels here. They were eliminated by the eventual national champions in a 1-0 contest.
This team was different, however. They weren't fueled by stats alone, but their love for their Mavericks community.
"There's a genuine love between young people," Colorado Mesa head coach Chris Hanks said. "They care about people other than themselves. We have 18 guys that went with the handicapped kids to Williamsport and spent a week with those kids and their families. These guys bonded together with the loss of our dear teammate Ryan Teixeira. They persevered through all that in helping Ryan through his sickness. This group is about a 3.2 GPA in the classroom, they're a hard working group. I'd go to battle with every single one of them every day of the week."
But it was UC San Diego and West Chester that survived the storm, UC San Diego much more literally than the Golden Rams. The Tritons took 12 innings to score five runs in their opener eight days ago. Since then, fueled by Jack Larsen, Brandon Shirley, Tyler Durna and Alex Eliopulos atop the order, they reeled off 48 runs over four wins in five days. No team grinded harder than the Tritons this tournament, playing six games. Their opponent, thanks to not losing a game, had the luxury of playing four games spread over nine days.
“It’s hard right now because they’re really sad, and I’m sad for them,” head coach Eric Newman said after finishing as National Runner Up. “I hope that 24 hours from now they realize the pride, the love I have for them. I don’t think that anybody that’s ever put this Triton uniform on, or anyone who watched the way the team competed the last three weeks would feel anything but a tremendous amount of respect for these guys for the way they carried themselves and handled themselves. The way that they fought and were resilient, they were pretty awesome to watch. As a coach, they made me really proud.”
Robert Knox set the tone in the Championship Game, hitting a lead off home run. When UC San Diego answered to tie the game in the second, shortstop Nick Ward came right back with a home run over the right field wall.
“That was definitely a good feeling,” Knox said of his homer. “I kind of just [grinded out] the at bat, was just fouling off pitches, trying to have a good at bat. He left one over the plate, and I put a pretty good swing on it."
“I don’t really have any words,” Ward added. “I had no idea what to expect coming in. This was all new, but when he [Robert Knox] hit that home run, I just had a great feeling that we were going to win this game. They played us really tough, and put some doubt in my head for sure. But he set the tone.”
That's not to take away from the utter dominance of West Chester's pitching. Its starters were dominant, and its closer, Josh McClain was the best player in the tournament. He picked up both his 10th win and a save while in Grand Prairie, setting a program record as the first to do so. His 11th win came in a four-inning performance in the Championship Game, striking out the side in the ninth and earning Most Outstanding Player honors.
“I’m super grateful of the guys that were behind me all year,” Most Outstanding Player Josh McClain said. “I had a lot of trust in them. Couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to share this with.”
What a week and a half from The Ballpark in Grand Prairie. A few legends were born, a few program records shattered and a National Champion was crowned.
Isn't it great that we get to do this all over again next year?