June 1, 2010

Bryan Rose, Special to NCAA.com

GRAND CHUTE, Wis. - The Illinois Wesleyan Titans were supposed to go home May 15. The Titans, who finished the regular season 19-19, had just lost a game in their conference tournament, where they came in as the bottom seed, and were one loss from ending their season.

But Tuesday, the Titans hoisted the national championship trophy for the first time in school history after defeating SUNY Cortland, 17-5, at the NCAA Division III Baseball Championship.

The win caps a magical run for the Titans (31-21), during which they won 16 of their last 20 games to clinch the title.

"It's unbelievable," Illinois Wesleyan coach Dennis Martel said. "Where we were three weeks ago, this is a real Cinderella story to get here and accomplish what we have done. What an unbelievable 19 days since our conference tournament started."

On Tuesday, Cortland (40-10-1) struck first, scoring two runs on a home run by Steve Nickel after Andersen Gardner reached on an Illinois Wesleyan error.

But Illinois Wesleyan took over from there. After scoring a run in the second inning, the Titans took the lead with three runs in the third and four runs in the fourth. Illinois Wesleyan blew the game open with nine runs in the fifth and cruised to the win from there.

Jeff Grodecki sparked the Illinois Wesleyan offense and earned Most Outstanding Player honors in the process. Grodecki, who came into the championships having hit just one home run on the season, belted two home runs in this game, while going 5-for-5 and driving in three runs. He also scored four times. He had three home runs in the tournament.

"I would say about a month ago, I made a little change to my swing," said Grodecki, who at one point this season was batting .170. "That was it, just a little change."

Casey McIntosh added a three-run home run as part of the Illinois Wesleyan offensive explosion.

With the Titan offense clicking, Wesleyan starting pitcher Jason Pankau kept the Red Dragons off-balance at the plate. Pankau threw 7 1/3 innings, while allowing just one earned run on six hits. He struck out nine batters while walking two. Cortland's Nickel said Pankau was able to relax out there and get into a rhythm after giving up the home run in the first inning. "I got on him in the first inning," Nickel said of his two run shot. "He settled down after that. He mixed up his pitches pretty good."

"The first inning, I was just getting a feel for the team," Pankau said. "They were an off-speed hitting team so I started using my fastball and stuck with that."

Cortland coach Joe Brown said he was proud of what his team did and that the Red Dragons just ran into a hot Illinois Wesleyan team.

"This is a day of mixed emotions," Brown said of his team, which had defeated Linfield, 12-9, earlier in the day. "We got the win over a very good Linfield team. [We] just ran into a tremendous buzz saw. [Illinois Wesleyan] hit the ball all over the park."

Tuesday marked the second time the Red Dragons had lost on the last day of the tournament. In 2005, the Red Dragons fell to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in the finals.

For the Titans, the 21 losses they suffered this season are the most by any eventual national champion.

"We have joked all year long that we could make a movie about this team," said Titan catcher Mark McDermott. "We've had nothing to lose [throughout the post season] so we were playing loose. I guess that is something we should have figured out earlier."

Martel said this win was special for him personally.

"When you spend 25 years chasing this, it is very gratifying," he said. "We have great kids and just an unbelievable team."