By Ben Smith:
Before the season, and during the early season, different people would often ask, “How do you think you guys are this year?” Usually, I gave the same answer as most years, “Ask me again in May.” May arrived and we were playing pretty well, but in all honesty I still didn’t know. I wanted to believe we were pretty good, but part of me didn’t want to mess with that. As long as I kept telling myself that I wasn’t sure then maybe we’d keep rolling. However, after the NAIA Opening Round, there was no denying that this team was pretty special.
Watching your team dogpile is always exciting, even when the score was 27-4. They’d earned this. Their families had earned this. That feeling of doubt of whether, or not, we belonged was pushed aside. For the fourth time in school history, the Crusaders were headed back to the World Series. I soaked up the moment from a distance watching the guys celebrate. I watched the smile on Coach Halford’s face as he gave multiple interviews. We’d experienced our first World Series trip together six years ago and at times wondered if we’d get back. Although, this game didn’t have the drama at the end as the last one, it was every bit as sweet. After sharing a ton of hugs and taking what felt like hundreds of pictures, it was time to go pack.
The NAIA World Series is held each year at Harris Field in Lewiston, Idaho and there’s no easy way to get there. We were booked on three different flights to Spokane, Washington arriving late at night before enduring a two hour bus ride into Lewiston. We finally arrived at our hotel around 2:30 in the morning…Pacific time. The next day, I was absolutely wiped out, but the guys seemed just fine. We had practice that evening and some of the guys helped put on a kids clinic at Harris Field. The next day consisted of practice, a media event, a visit to an elementary school, and the World Series banquet. To me, it was a lot to take on in such a short time, but the guys handled it in stride with no complaint. After all of the festivities were over, it was finally time to play baseball.
Before our game began at 3:30 on Friday, that old familiar feeling crept back into my head, “Do we belong?” That question was answered (just like before) when we won over the #5 seed Bellevue (Nebraska). They had a good team, and I knew they did, and we’d beaten them. Our team had been a confident bunch all year long, but you could see the confidence ooze out of them following the game. I don’t think that they ever had a doubt, but if they did, it was answered for them now, too. With the way the bracket set up, we didn’t play again until Monday night. This gave us a couple of days to actually catch our breath, which was pretty important for Monday’s game because we were playing the defending national champions and #1 seed from Southeastern University in Florida.
Monday night was weird for me. I usually have some sort of butterflies, or nerves, before a game but this time there was nothing. I was unusually relaxed for some reason and so were our guys. Southeastern jumped out 1-0 in the top of the first, but we came right back with two of our own in the bottom half. From there, the route was on. By the ninth inning, we were up 13-2 in one of the most non-dramatic World Series games that I’ve ever seen. The only drama of the evening was the win gave Coach Halford his 1300th at William Carey. I couldn’t think of a more fitting place for the milestone to happen. While Coach Halford was giving his post-game interview, I addressed the team to let them know about #1300. Admittedly, I got a little choked up talking about it seeing how much it meant to our guys. They know that nobody has given more to William Carey than Bobby Halford continues to do, and this was a special moment for him and our entire program.
From there, things went cold. Over the next two games we didn’t pitch, nor hit, well enough to win. We dropped the next two games having to settle for a 4th place finish at the World Series. The ride was finally over. Once again, I watched from a distance our guys give one last hug as they said goodbye to the season. I thought back over our journey to this point. Even when I thought we were pretty good, you can never imagine being in this spot. You can say, “we expect this” all you want, but actually being here has a different feel. It’s humbling. It’s rewarding. It will rip your guts out and make you want to do whatever it takes to get back. And that’s our plan.
A season like this doesn’t happen without a lot of moving parts. Before I wrap this column up, I’d like to thank some people that made it possible. Thank you to Dr. Ben Burnett and Athletic Director DJ Pulley for giving us the tools needed to accomplish this. Without our entire administration’s support, we would have never gotten off the ground. Thank you to everyone who pitched in to help with the SSAC Tournament and the Opening Round at Milton Wheeler Field. Thank you to the guys in the booth, Ben Milam and Caleb Hamill for keeping folks back home up to speed with the games. Thank you to the Sports Information staff at WCU. Thank you to Assistant AD Lauren Broom for all of your help with travel in Lewiston. Thank you to all of the fans for your support throughout the entire season. Thank you to our families. Your sacrifice so we can chase dreams doesn’t go unnoticed. Finally, thank you to our players. You’ve made WCU proud. Let’s do it again next year! Go Crusaders!