(Bloomington, IL – May 19, 2011) – By the time he threw his first pitch, he’d already prepared the mound for play, something that’s become a regular task for him. This was the start of Jason Pankau’s night, one that would end with a thrilling 3-2 victory on a 1-6-3 double play with two runners on in the 9th inning.
Head coach Dennis Martel was still two blocks away when he heard the final out on the radio and rambled onto the field as the post-game handshakes were concluding. Driving most of the day after attending the funeral of his mother-in-law three state’s away, it was a comforting and fitting ending to Illinois Wesleyan’s first round game in the NCAA Division III Central Regional. He joined his team and engaged them in a “group hug” – quietly celebrating their victory and looking forward to tonight’s matchup.
As a fan, it’s easy to embrace the success the Titans have experienced of late, including the first-ever national baseball championship by a CCIW team in 2010.
As an impartial observer, it’s easy to appreciate what the Titans have accomplished for the same reason.
After manning the rake during his pregame duties, Pankau’s 144-pitch performance earned him career victory number 25, establishing a school record, passing Adam Palmer’s (1998-2001) 24-15 mark. The celebration that followed was barely noticeable (other than an ice-bath by teammates while he talked with the local media), suggesting a realization among the players that another run is possible, or perhaps even probable after beating a Thomas More (KY) team many D3 baseball proponents labeled as the region favorite.
What lies ahead?
A year ago, the sixth-seeded Titans opened up Regional play by “upsetting” top-seed Buena Vista (IA), beating them again a few days later in the Regional Final. That same Buena Vista awaits a chance at revenge tonight.
As the crowd thinned after last evening’s game, Dennis Martel lingered with his players, several times announcing “I have to go, the kids are in the car.” Despite what had to be a stressful few days prior, his face held only a smile.
Jason Pankau lingered as well. His normal routine would be to re-work his mound, but other players had that task nearly concluded by the time he finished with both the local radio and newspaper. He wore a smile as well, although watching him the last couple of years I’ve noted his emotion is always measured, never detracting from the focus and concentration that makes him so successful on the mound.
As I write this, it occurs to me that I may have witnessed the last game Jason Pankau will ever pitch for Illinois Wesleyan University. I hope not, and want to believe a return trip and repeat national title are still ahead. But the reality is those odds are long, as there hasn’t been a repeat champion in the past 30 years.
If that’s the case, I’ll remember the smiles.
I’ll remember a touching moment between player and coach in last year’s National Championship game when Pankau left the mound leading 17-3 in the 8th inning, accepting a crowd’s applause and a coach’s embrace.
This is Division III baseball, where the winning pitcher still repairs his mound when the game is over.
Media coverage is limited, although clearly appreciated whenever the local newspaper or radio station dispatches a journalist to report the action.
Players toil in relative obscurity in front of small crowds, and regularly miss practice for Biology labs.
Yet it’s baseball in its purest sense, a part of our national soul, where the game is being played for nothing other than a love for the game.
There are no scholarships in Division III, no financial inducements.
If you haven’t seen a game at this level, you’re missing out.
First pitch, 7:00pm.
Note: If you are unfamiliar with the CCIW, it an acronym for the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin, a collection of highly regarded academic institutions that just happen to foster nationally competitive athletic teams in nearly every sport.