|Earlham is playoff bound for the first time after winning the HCAC title on Saturday.
Earlham athletics photo
The Quakers' took the last, long step to history Saturday, beating Mount St. Joseph 5-2 for their first HCAC tournament since joining the league in 2011. Coming with it will be Earlham's first-ever trip to the Division III NCAA Tournament.
Who was it who said the last shall be first? These Earlham seniors came as freshmen to a program that had not seen a winning season in 43 years. By last year, they got to the championship round before a painful 7-6 loss to Rose-Hulman. Now, they're conference champions.
"I'm proud for the kids," coach Steve Sakosits said, just dry from his Gatorade bath. "The work they put into it, buying into a program that hasn't had much success in the past, to say we're going to help make a change.
"This is something special. I believe people in the past didn't believe Earlham College could ever do something like this."
But that was yesterday. This week, the Quakers (29-12) played like the No. 1 seed they were. They went through the tournament 3-0, running their winning streak to 10 games. They trailed at the end of only one inning -- that after the second in the opener against Rose-Hulman on Thursday afternoon.
But it wasn't easy. Making history shouldn't be, right?
"We had to battle every single inning,' said right fielder Kendal Baker, named the tournament's most outstanding player.
So maybe Earlham's renowned running game wasn't working. The team that came in leading the nation with 3.8 stolen bases a game had only three the entire tournament.
So maybe the Quakers' league-leading hitting attack wasn't in peak form. They stranded 10 men Saturday and were 2-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
But if Plan A didn't work, Plan B would do. Pitching and defense. "I could care less how we win," Sakosits said. "We've just got to find a way to do it, and our kids did that."
Earlham allowed seven runs in three games, and was scored upon in only three of 28 innings. Its starting pitchers of Howie Smith, Kyle Gorman and Colin Greve had an earned run average in the tournament of 2.21 and walked only three batters in 20 innings. This by a staff whose ERA flirted with 10 early in the season.
"When you're consecutively putting zeroes up like that, it is really tough to beat a team like us," said Walter Talcott, who chipped in 5.2 innings of scoreless relief.
Talcott is an example of Earlham's resolve. The HCAC freshman of the year lost much of this sophomore season to elbow injury. But he was there this week to come out of the bullpen twice for a win and a save.
Baker is another. He went to high school only five blocks from campus, but the hometown product played little his first two seasons.
He was the biggest man on campus this week, with a .625 batting average and the fielder who made the most important play in Saturday's game. That was in the fourth inning. Nathan Hunter's two-run single for Mount St. Joseph had just tied the game 2-2. A moment later, Garrett Hogan's single to right appeared a go-ahead hit.
But Baker's laser throw from right gunned down Hunter trying to score. End of inning, end of last chance that Mount. St. Joseph would ever get at the lead.
"If it's 3-2, it's momentum their side," Sakosits said. "But we end that inning saying. tie game, let's go there and get another run. And we were able to do that."
Indeed, the Quakers quickly got the lead back in the bottom of the fourth on Matt Barger's sacrifice fly. They added another run in the sixth when Barger singled in Danny Dopp, who had been moved to second base on a perfect sacrifice bunt by . . . Baker.
Baker was on base three times, and drove in the first run. He was 5-for-8 in the tournament, batting ninth. What a fairy tale this became, in his own backyard.
"To bring it here to Richmond, put it on for the community, it means everything to me," he said.
"Everything that kid has done is all through his hard work," Sakosits said. "Look at the opportunities he had early in his career. There weren't many of them. But he worked his butt off to get to where he's at.
"The program motto, earned not given, he earned every single opportunity he's gotten."
Earlham pushed the lead to 5-2 with Nate Lynch's sacrifice fly in the eighth. There was one last tense moment in the Mount St. Joseph ninth, when the Lions led off with singles by Roman Rothwell and Hunter against Talcott.
Was a rally in the air? No.
"You've got to stay poised, go out there and throw strikes and trust your defense, and that's what we did," Talcott said.
A Simon Schaefer ground ball led to a force at second. When Earlham tried to turn the double play, the throw sailed over the first baseman's head. Rothwell race for home to score, but first baseman Eric Elkus retrieved the ball and threw him out at the plate.
It was a most odd double play, but the message was clear enough. Earlham's time had come.
"We don't break. We bend a little bit. In our case, we did that," Sakosits said.
All that was left was for the Quakers to jump into a pile near the mound after the last out. It looked like half the college was out there.
"To see the alums be as involved as they are, and be proud to be part of something we're trying to do here, means a lot," said Sakosits, in his seventh year as head coach. "I'm not an Earlham grad, but these people have brought me in to believe that I'm part of this family.
"To be on our home field, doing this here, it doesn't get any better than that."
A new day had dawned at Earlham. There's no time like the first time.
Story by Mike Lopresti