West Florida rolls to first title
Argonauts jump out to early lead and cruise past Winona State
CARY, N.C. --- Greg Pron lost 32 games during his 2008 freshman season at West Florida. The idea of him ever celebrating a national championship on a June afternoon in North Carolina seemed as likely as finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
But when closer Shane Waller threw strike three over the plate against Winona State’s Seth McMullen in the bottom of the ninth inning of the NCAA Division II national championship game Saturday, Pron joined his teammates on the mound in a frenzied celebration, a 12-2 win in the books, hats scattered across the field and those 32 losses a distant memory.
The senior right fielder only had one hit in the game in six trips to the plate, but it didn’t matter on this sun-kissed day at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
Pron, who hit .322 as a freshman and ended up as one of the top hitters in program history, had a trophy in his hands and that was worth more than any hit.
“As we got near the end of the game waiting for that last out, you could feel the excitement,” Pron said. “It’s amazing to win it. I’ve experienced both extremes. We were the worst team around. We took it to heart and look where it got us. It got us a national championship.”
The national championship is the first for West Florida (52-9), which cranked out 15 hits and never looked back after jumping in front 4-0 in the first inning.
The fourth-ranked Argonauts became the fifth team from the Sunshine State in the last seven years to win a title.
Head coach Mike Jeffcoat remembers what it was like to watch the team struggle during the 2008 season. But like his players, he never lost hope. He always believed that life would get better and that a day like Saturday would eventually materialize.
“Some of the freshman from that team didn’t come back, but we had a good core of players and that season was a great learning experience,” Jeffcoat said. “We stayed the course and believed in our vision of winning a championship. We talked about winning one all the time and it feels good to make it happen.”
A big first inning was all the Argonauts needed to put the No. 16 Warriors (42-18) on their heels. Taye Larry led off the game with a hit and eventually scored when Josh Huggins beat out the throw for a single and gave the speedy Larry time to race around the base paths and score for a 1-0 lead.
Leo Lamarche drilled a single to left to drive in a run and Zach Taylor smacked a two-run hit to centerfield to push the West Florida advantage to 4-0. Taylor’s hit was the dagger in an inning where the five through nine hitters in the Argonauts lineup combined for three hits and four RBI.
“It was big to have those guys step up,” Jeffcoat said. “The four-run inning really took the pressure off. You don’t expect that in a championship game. We were excited right out of the gate.”
Yet, Winona State wasn’t going to give up its championship dream without a fight. The Warriors trailed 4-0 in the first inning of their victory against Southern Connecticut on Thursday night, so they were confident they could put together another rally.
The bottom of the first started off well. Tony Mueller and Nate Van Roekel both tallied singles but hope would fade fast for the Warriors against Daniel Vargas-Vila (16-1), who gave up 10 hits on the day and struck out seven in eight innings of work.
Mueller, who has been an offensive star all season for the Warriors, hitting .388 with 33 RBI, talked about the frustration of not being able to get the offense clicking against the Argonauts.
“We’ve been in that situation before, down four runs, and we weren’t too worried,” Mueller said. “We got those first two hits and felt like we could get something going. We just couldn’t put it together today.”
The Warriors scored their only two runs in the eighth when Cody Strang ripped a triple to center to drive in two runs and give the Winona State fans something to cheer about, if only for a moment.
Still, finishing second to a West Florida team that won 22 consecutive games earlier this year and even held the No. 1 ranking is nothing to feel bad about.
Warriors head coach Kyle Poock had to fight back tears as he talked about the season coming to an end after such a remarkable run. Keep in mind that the Warriors didn’t even win the regular season Northern Sun Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament championship.
“It’s been a goal of our program to get to this level and compete,” Poock said. “We have been very successful and had a great year. I’m proud of my guys. We had our chances but West Florida is a great baseball team.”
Mueller finished with three hits to pace the Warriors. Van Roekel and Adam Gemuenden came through with two hits apiece.
Kodey Simon (8-3) took the loss. He lasted four innings and gave up seven runs on nine hits. He recorded two strikeouts as well.
West Florida scored 10 or more runs for the second time in the national tourney. Larry, Huggins and Brandon Brewer, another player on that 2008 team, all had three hits in the win.
“I struggled with my location and got behind a lot,” Simon said. “You can’t do that against a good hitting team.”
As music blared over the speakers and the West Florida fans danced in the stands as they watched their team savor the special moment, Pron reflected on this remarkable journey, a journey that seemed unlikely a few years earlier.
“It’s awesome,” Pron said. “Words can’t describe it. We’ve worked so hard for this and it’s great to see that hard work pay off.”