February 22, 2020

Exceeding Expectations

Illinois Wesleyan baseball coach Dennis Martel repeated over and over how unbelievable the Titans’ post season run was.  I’m sure he must have housed a butterfly garden in his stomach, but you’d never know it on championship day.

Before the final game even started, he encouraged his players to appreciate the environment in which they were playing.

“Get out of the dugout, enjoy the moment, take a look around,” he told them.

“Look in the stands, create a memory.”

A short walk and survey of the crowd brought an observation by one of the Titan players that should have been clear much earlier.

“This must be a big game, our president is here boys,” he noted after seeing Illinois Wesleyan president Dr. Richard Wilson in the stands.

Must be a big game?

Yes, only the national championship of NCAA Division III baseball, a game the Titans would win in dominating fashion over Cortland (NY) State University, a team with more name references than effective pitchers in the finale.

But that comment illustrates how matter of fact the Titans were going about their business, a relaxed team that had already exceeded everyone’s expectations.  They were just doing what college athletes should be doing, showing up and competing every game.

The team’s run has been well chronicled in multiple sources  elsewhere, with the Titans sitting 14-17 at one point, only to survive the potential end of their season on several occasions before marching through the championship round.

Forget the 20-8 drubbing they took from then #15 Marietta on their spring trip.

Never mind the 16-6 beat down they endured at Carthage during conference season play.

Illinois Wesleyan is the newly crowned NCAA champs with the most losses of any champion in history, a meaningless statistic in the overall scheme of things.

Cinderella?  I suppose you could label them that way, but from my vantage point at field level, they were clearly the best team in the tournament.

Absent a national ranking and stellar statistical resume, the Titans simply came to play.  They pitched.  They hit.  And they won.

Prior commitments forced me to miss the first three games, which all turned out to be competitive, hard fought victories, carrying the momentum forward.

Even in the 11-10, ninth inning loss to Cortland State in Monday’s throw away game, the Titans easily could have won despite resting a couple players that normally would be in the lineup.

Yet there was no panic in the dugout.  No panic the next day when Cortland hit a two-run home run in the top of the 1st inning of the championship game.

Instead, the players remained focused on the task at hand, with a full compliment of available pitchers at Martel’s disposal.

A weak spot earlier in the season, the team’s hitting responded with a vengeance.  The worst swings I saw in the final two days were by players at an indoor golf game at the team’s hotel.  The ball jumped off their bats in the championship game, and Cortland State had no answer.  With 17 runs on the board, the only thing left to do was let the game mercifully end without controversy.

A nice touch by both head coaches, they subbed players to allow well deserved ovations and otherwise nonexistent playing opportunities to teammates that hadn’t yet seen the big stage.

When the final out came, the traditional dogpile ensued.  The players hugged, the fans screamed, and the coaches cried.

Personally, I drifted back a couple weeks to that first Regional contest in Moline, Illinois.

It was there, prior to their opening game with top-seeded Buena Vista, that Coach Martel looked at me and said, “I just want to win one.”

I assumed at the time he meant an NCAA regional game, after going 0-4 in the Titan’s two prior NCAA appearances.

But maybe he meant one championship.  A championship he would have a couple weeks later.

Exceeding my expectations.

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From the Notebook

A few things learned or observed:

Sitting on the concourse during the play-in game between Cortland and Linfield (OR), several elderly fans that lived in the area and attended the tournament annually held a lively discussion.  They had become Titan fans after Wisconsin-Stevens Point was eliminated, and their general sentiment was “I want Illinois Wesleyan to win, but I just want to see good baseball, not a blowout.”  One out of two isn’t bad.

Kudos to the staff photographer at the Appleton Post-Crescent.  As the final inning approached and the outcome became a formality, the three photographers in the area talked about how we would shoot the celebration moment so we weren’t in each other’s way (and photos).  He told me there is typically a “30-second cooling off period” where we all hold our positions and not move in close with the wide lens immediately so we didn’t disrupt each other’s photos.  Our strategy and communication worked great, as we all avoided each other’s sightline.  Unfortunately, the photographer stationed by Cortland’s dugout didn’t take part in the conversation (he wouldn’t have been in our way from his location, and had told me earlier he was there to shoot Cortland that day). Unfortunately,  he quickly took center stage and moved in close almost immediately, as you can see in this photo.  A potentially great shot – ruined.

On a personal note, the Titan’s championship with 21 losses was the most in NCAA Division III history; one better than the 1976 Cal St – Stanislaus team that concluded their national championship run with a record of 33-20-2.  That team was coached by Dr. Jim Bowen, a high school teammate of my father on the 1961 Cedar Rapids (IA) Jefferson undefeated state baseball champions, and someone I had communicated with last summer when doing research on that high school team.  Sadly,  Dr. Bowen lost a long battle with leukemia last December.

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