The best thing about coaching college baseball is getting to watch guys have success that deserve it. It doesn’t always happen, life isn’t always fair. But when it does, it’s truly a special thing to witness. Last year, after what I consider a lengthy drought (10 years), we got to watch our guys hoist the conference championship trophy for the first time since joining our current conference, the SSAC. We’d been close before (in 2011) but hadn’t knocked the door down yet. Even the 2017 team that finished third in the country came up short in our conference.
Winning a conference championship is always a goal at the beginning of the year. Of course, the ultimate goal is a national championship, but holding the conference logo at the end of the regular season comes first. After you win the league, staying on top is tough. The next year, everyone is gunning for you. You get everyone’s best effort. I’ve got a lot of respect for teams that win conference championships year after year because I know just how hard that is to do.
We entered this season with a target on our backs and missing a few of our top players from last season’s championship team. As a coach, you always have that thought of which guys are going to step up and fill the shoes of the guys that carried you before. Sometimes it happens right out of the gate. Sometimes it takes some time for you to find those guys, or for them to find themselves. Either way, if you are going to repeat a championship, someone has to step up and be the guy.
February went by so fast. We played at home nearly the entire month and pretty much cruised through the schedule relatively untested. We played well at times, and we played poorly at times, but kept finding ways to win. Then, March arrived and the schedule flipped to life on the road. Life on the road gets tough. Calls don’t go your way. The field plays different. All the while, everyone is still hungry to beat the defending champs. We limped through much of the month playing .500 baseball.
April is where you make your money. This is the time of the year that you want your team to get hot. We lost four of our first seven games of the month. We’d blown an 8-1 lead and a 5-0 lead late in our last two games. Then, down 4-0 in the 6th inning of a Friday night conference game, everything changed. After scoring on a sacrifice fly to cut the deficit to three, we got the hit we’d been waiting for. A pinch-hit three run homer ignited the team and revived a season that was on the brink of dying. We ended up sweeping the series to begin our late April run.
We were 23-15 overall and fourth in our conference standings when that home run was hit. Arriving at the park the next morning felt different. There was a different energy. There was a different identity. Baseball is largely a game of confidence, and all of a sudden, you could feel this team find it. The 2021 team was very streaky. 2022 had been anything but that. But when you get on a roll, you feel like you’re going to win every time you come to the park, no matter who you’re playing. The team won the next 10 games to finish off the regular season heading back to the conference tournament, where we’d defend our title.
The first game of the tournament may have been one of the strangest games I’ve ever been involved with. By the fourth inning, we were down 12-1. I’ve had my fair share of butt whippings delivered to me over the years, but for some reason, this didn’t feel like that. That confidence still oozed from our dugout and we began to chip away at the lead. By the time the seventh inning was finished, we were up 14-12. We ended up winning the game by a score of 16-14 in the largest comeback that I ever remember in my career as a player, or a coach.
After winning the next two games, we were back in the championship. Same two teams as a year ago. Once again, we got hits when we needed them, and got one of our best performances on the mound all season. The 9th inning went without drama and for the second time in as many years I watched our guys celebrate a conference championship after a 7-0 win.
I watched the guys smile and hug their teammates. I watched our skipper shake hands with dozens of people (he’s won about 20 of these). Messages and phone calls of congratulations poured in from family, friends, and former players. While watching the celebration, I thought about all of the people that it takes to make this possible. None of it happens without the support of former players. It doesn’t happen without the support of the administration. Without fans, it doesn’t matter. I don’t like to compare teams, but this one will always be special to me. Regardless of what happens the rest of the way, these guys deserve to be mentioned with some of the best teams we’ve had. Winning a championship is tough, defending one is tougher…and these guys answered the bell.