The Roanoke College baseball team is in the Big Apple this week, as in “Appleton, Wisconsin.” That’s the site of the NCAA Division III baseball championships, a trip the Maroons won by stunning the field to win the NCAA South Region last week in Danville.
The Maroons have come a long way in the past 15 years. The program first played an intercollegiate game in 2002, opening with a 24-1 loss to Lynchburg College. Roanoke finished 0-13 that season, but that seemed like a long time ago when the Maroons were celebrating on the infield Sunday afternoon at Dan Daniels Park.
The season of firsts continued for the Maroons, who recovered from a 7-6 loss to Salisbury University with a 13-5 triumph over the Sea Gulls to win the Danville Regional and punch a ticket to the NCAA Division III Baseball Tournament championship series. Roanoke was the sixth seed in the six team tournament after pulling an upset win in the ODAC tournament a week prior, their first ever ODAC championship.
Will the magic continue. RC coach Matt McGuire doesn’t see why it can’t.
“We’re going to Wisconsin to win it,” he said. “We can play with any of these teams. I said that from the start of the season, and now our players believe, too. It really doesn’t matter who’s in the other dugout.”
The finals feature eight teams that will play thru a double elimination format. Those squads will travel to Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton, Wis., and compete over six days from May 26-31 for the right to hoist the NCAA’s walnut and bronze.
Roanoke will open against Oswego State at 1:15 pm Friday. Oswego, a school in upstate New York, comes to Wisconsin with a 32-9 record. Other first round games match Concordia of Chicago(33-11) against Washington & Jefferson(38-11), UMass Boston(37-10) against North Central of Illinois(29-16), and Cal Luthern(35-10) against Wheaton of Mass.(27-15)
The Maroons, now a school record 33-17, are just the second team to qualify for the Division III baseball finals under the ODAC banner, joining Hampden-Sydney College in 2005. Shenandoah University, a current ODAC member, twice has appeared in the finals as a member of the USA South in 2009 and 2010.
Roanoke started the regional started off on the right foot with wins over Salisbury (15-5), Emory University (4-2), and LaGrange College (5-2). Those wins reversed RC’s position from the ODAC Tournament, where instead of having to win twice on the final day to advance, the Maroons had two chances to win one game.
In Sunday’s first game, Roanoke held leads of 3-2 after three frames and 4-3 following the fifth, but two runs by Salisbury (35-10) in the sixth against one for Roanoke left the game tied at 5-5. The Sea Gulls added two more in the eighth to go ahead 7-5, a lead which persisted until the ninth when Roanoke nearly mounted a comeback.
Dean Hermanson led off with a walk and Sam Watson followed with a single thru the right side. Scott Ellis sacrificed to move both runners up, although he nearly beat the play at first. Drew Mikula stepped to the dish for the first time as a pinch hitter for Cody Shell. He sent a ground thru the left side to pull RC to within one at 7-6.
With Watson now on third, Will Black nearly pushed him the remaining 90 feet with a liner back up the middle. But SU shortstop Scott Ardoin made a diving stab and doubled up pinch runner Ross Strickland at first to end both RC’s threat and the game.
The loss certainly didn’t deter Roanoke from its goal, especially with ace John Ruhlman returning to the hill. He defeated the Sea Gulls with six strong innings in the regional’s opening game, fanning eight along the way. He didn’t strike out as many in this contest, but he went another six frames and partnered with Rawlings Cumbea to keep Salisbury at bay.
RC’s offense was first to crack the scoreboard with two runs in the top of the third. Hermanson drove in Collier Donald and Sean Guida with a single to left-center. SU got one back in the bottom of the frame, leaving Roanoke up 2-1 after three.
The Maroons tacked on two more in the fifth. Will Decker drove in Eli Sumpter with a sac fly to right. Two batters later, Hermanson pushed around Donald with a single to center. Donald’s stay on the basepaths was extended via a throwing error by the catcher on a failed pickoff attempt.
Salisbury was again equal to the task in the bottom of the fifth as they posted three runs, including two unearned tallies, to knot the game 4-4 after five.
The Maroons were done playing small ball in the sixth as they exploded for seven runs to blow the game open and put thoughts of advancement in their fans’ minds. With one down, Mikula and Sumpter singled around a Black walk to load the bases. Guida sent a shot back up the middle to bring around both Mikula and Black. Donald reloaded the bases with the second free pass of the inning. Decker delivered the knockout punch one batter later as he tripled to center to clear the bases. Hermanson drew the third walk of the inning before Watson smacked the second extra-base hit of the frame, doubling down the right field line to plate both runners and put RC ahead, 11-4.
Donald, who scored three runs in the game, turned run-producer in the seventh as he drove in Sumpter with a triple down the left field line. The run was Sumpter’s third of the game and made it 12-4 RC.
Trying to chip away late in the game, Salisbury got one back in the eighth, but Roanoke put down any thoughts of a comeback with a sac fly to left by Guida to plate Black for the game’s 18th and final run. RC’s defense ended the contest in style with a 6-4-3 double play.
That set off a wild celebration, which carried over on the way home. However, once the team got back to Salem it was all business.
“I must have received 100 text messages,” said McGuire. “It was a lot of fun and these guys are great to be around. It’s the loosest team I’ve ever been involved with.
“But,” he added, “once we got back home the celebrating is over. Our goal isn’t to just get to Wisconsin, it’s to win the tournament.”