Better late than never for Messiah
Falcons are only team with losing record to head to tourney
Messiah College doesn’t have a long history of postseason play, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t playoff tested. After a rough start, it has been in playoff mode for about three weeks now.
Including the playoffs, the Falcons won eight of their last 12 games. Its last three wins helped Messiah take the Commonwealth Championship as a No. 4 seed (the last seed in the tourney) as it knocked off the No. 1 team twice to defend its conference title. That was good enough to earn a berth in the NCAA Division III Baseball Regions – all with a 19-23 record, the only team in the playoffs with a losing record.
“We’re peaking at the right time,” Steve DeRiggs, Messiah head baseball coach, said. “We played a good non-conference schedule against some good teams. But early on, we had some difficulty with our pitching because we lost our depth.”
DeRiggs understated his depth mightily. From last year’s team of the eight players lost, three were among his top-four pitchers. Then, about a third of the way into the season he lost Tory Arnesen, his No. 1 starter, to an injury. It had a domino effect. Messiah’s No. 2 pitcher, Jon Lapp, a sophomore, became the No. 1. From there DeRiggs had to improvise. First baseman Wes Hollenbach moved into the rotation at No. 3 and Zach Adams, the team’s top reliever became the No. 4.
“The rest of the bullpen had to pick us up and did a pretty good job toward the end,” DeRiggs said. "We had to make them into starters. It’s been a while coming around, but once we started to gel and started to hit the ball, we were OK. Defensively we were giving four and five outs at one part of the season, but as the season went along we were much better with the glove. We’ve been a very productive team the last third of the year.”
DeRiggs credits the team’s make up for the turnaround.
“I have high moral quality young men,” DeRiggs said. “The last 16 games they came together with a lot of enthusiasm. I am very proud of their effort to overcome the adversity this year. We had to make some adjustments and we’ve just executed better. Doing things like bunting and playing small ball. I’ve been quite pleased with them once they saw what they could do.”
What they did was rebound from the 2-7 conference record to earn a berth with a furious push in the last month. But standing in their way was Alvernia, a team that has swept Messiah during the regular season. The intensity of the final weeks of the season had the Falcons more than ready for any rematch.
“We played [Alvernia] well, but just didn’t finish,” DeRiggs said. “We’d see them in the tournament, but for us, we’ve been in the tournament mode the last three and a half, four weeks. We couldn’t afford to lose because we’d lost seven conference games. Otherwise we couldn’t have gotten in the top-four [tournament spots]. We’ve usually done well the last two years. The kids seem to be more relaxed even though they’ve played well. We just want to try to keep it going if we can.”
And they did. To take the title it got a huge RBI double from senior Sam Tajiri and a solid pitching performance from Hollenbach, the converted first baseman to win the title game.
“They won seven in a row that got them back into the conference with a No. 4 seed,” DeRiggs said. “They’ve responded. The credit goes to them.
“We feel like we have some special young men who take the game in the proper perspective. Play hard, they prepare and they execute the fundamentals. We feel blessed to get this opportunity to get to this point, and we certainly want to give it our best the next couple of days.”