Courtesy of Concordia University Chicago
RIVER FOREST, Ill. -- The road to the 2018 Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference baseball crown has not been the smoothest one for third-year head coach Mike Stawski and his team to travel. Nightmarish April weather necessitating a heavily loaded back end of the conference schedule was a major obstacle, not to mention injuries, both short-term and season-ending. But through it all, the Cougars clinched their sixth consecutive regular-season title as well as the top seed in next week's conference tournament with a 16-8 win in game two of today's doubleheader against Benedictine University. The Eagles had kept their own first-place hopes alive briefly with a 10-5 win in game one, but the Cougars made sure of their win in game two with an attack that featured 17 hits, including four homes.
"Our seniors really got it going in game two, and this is their fourth title, we know they don't want to see the string come to an end while they're still here," said Stawski. "But I told our guys that while this was their fourth title, this is the first for our freshmen. We want everyone to know this feeling so they will always work toward winning this every year."
The Cougars were forced to wait until game two to celebrate, because the Eagles used a relentless hitting attack, along with some sloppy CUC defense, to take game one. Benedictine grabbed a 2-0 lead in game one, thanks in part to a pop fly that was lost in the sun that preceded Jimmy McLaughlin's two-run single. But the Cougar fought back with single runs in the second and third. Kevin Coppin launched the first of six Cougar homers on the day, a solo shot to right-center, and Bryan VanDuser doubled home the tying run in the third. However, the visitors regained the lead with a two-run single by Michael Chaffin in the fourth. They kept up the pressure with three runs in the fifth and three in the sixth. The Cougars would get an RBI single by Andrew Massey in the fifth and a two-run homer by Keegan Tyrell in the sixth, but Alex Schram would shut the door over the final three innings and save the game for Ryan Miller (6-1).
In game two, the Cougars started early, and the seniors provided the spark after the first two men were retired. Joe Silva fell behind 0-2 before ripping a single to center. Massey then hit the first pitch to the hole between first and second. That brought up Mitch Wilson, who returned to the lineup today after being sidelined the last 10 days. Wilson was held hitless in game one, but that was not to be the case in the nightcap. Wilson took ball one before golfing a lofty fly to right. The right fielder barely turned around as Wilson's first homer of 2018 was a no-doubter.
The Cougars went for the seemingly early kill in the second. Tyrell led off with his second homer of the day, going the opposite way to right. Connor Brandon followed with his second of the year, a deep shot to straightaway center. The Cougars weren't finished, as Silva doubled home a pair of runs, and Wilson singled home Silva to make the score 8-0 and chase the Benedictine starter from the game.
Benedictine was not ready to go quietly despite the early CUC blitz, and they fought back with three in the third. But the Cougars were back at it in the fourth. Wilson drove in his fifth run of the game with his third hit, and Coppin followed with a two-run double. Tyrell drove home the fourth run of the inning with a sacrifice fly, and CUC led 12-3 going to the fifth.
The Eagles still did not consider themselves out of it, as they fought back with two in the fifth and three in the sixth. Mike Formella entered the game with one out and the bases loaded in the sixth, and although he hit the first man he faced to force in a run, he got the next two men to ground out (the first scoring the final run of the inning), and the Cougars still led by a 12-8 score.
Concordia-Chicago finally put this game on ice with a four-spot in the seventh. Brandon led off with a laser to left that cleared the fence and reached Division Street for his second homer of the game and third of the season. Kevin Garcia and Jose Mercado then reached base, with Garcia eventually scoring on a sacrifice fly by Massey. The final two runs, unusually, scored on balks as the Cougars eight-run margin seemed to take the last of the fight out of the Eagles. Formella retired six of the final seven Eagles' batters, fanning four. With his 3 2.3 innings of relief, Formella earned his 13th save of the season, tying Steve Cox's record from the 2013 season. Formella is now just one behind Cox's career record of 22 saves. Keaton Conner pitched the first five innings and improved to 4-1 on the season.
In the race to the Cougars' all-time hits record, Wilson's five hits in game two raised his career total to 232 while Silva's three hits lifted his total to 231. The record is 235 by Jack Walker '09, who was in the ballpark today a coach with Benedictine.
The Cougars (28-10 overall) will play one final regular-season game this Sunday at 1:00 when they host North Central College. This game will pit the top-ranked teams in the Central Region (NCC) and the Midwest Region (CUC).