CARY, N.C. — The Division II Baseball National Championship game wasn’t exactly decided by the time the national anthem was over, but it was close.
Delta State spotted West Chester seven runs through the first three innings, including five in the bottom of the first. It didn’t get any prettier from there on out, and the Rams cruised to a 9-0 victory and their first national title.
The DII national championship was the first for a team from the northeast portion of the country, and capped a stellar 46-10 season for West Chester in head coach Jad Prachniak’s first year on the job.
“I’m going to retire,” Prachniak said with a grin following the game. “It was a good run. There’s not much left.”
He might just have a point.
“We lose some very good players,” Prachniak continued, serious this time. “It’s not that I’m looking onto next year right now, but I know that we lose some very special kids from a baseball standpoint and also just their personalities.
|DII BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP|
|West Chester 9, Delta State 0|
|Recap: West Chester earns first national title|
|Houston: Golden Rams go from worst to first|
“I haven’t really wrapped my head around this yet. I understand this will do a lot of things. Wherever we play next year, they’re going to be playing the defending national champs, so you’re not going to sneak up on anybody. But that’s a target we’ll take on our backs and we’ll actually enjoy it.”
West Chester came into the game with plenty of rest, while the Statesman had been forced to claw their way into the tournament final with hard-fought games the previous two days. Stumbling out of the starting blocks like they did killed any chances that Delta State might have had of staging yet another comeback.
That was especially the case going up against the likes of starting pitcher Joe Gunkel, who almost completely shut the Statesmen down in the first three frames before allowing just five hits the rest of the way. Gunkel, who took a no-hitter into the ninth in West Chester’s first game of the championship tournament, was named its most outstanding player.
“Getting that five spot just changes the course of the game, and limits some of the things they wanted to do and like to do,” Prachniak said. “We get some miss-hit balls that fell. If you get some of those things, good things can happen to you. They squared some balls right at guys. A couple of things certainly went in our favor in that game, and we definitely capitalized on those things.”
The cushion helped Gunkel make his pitches when and where he wanted them.
“It takes a tremendous amount of pressure off,” Gunkel admitted. “All year, we’ve talked about shut-down innings after our team scores. You just want to go out there and make sure the ball’s hit to our defense, which did a lot. All the credit should go to them, because I was just the one throwing the ball. They were the ones making the plays.”
Delta State head coach Mike Kinnison was gracious in defeat. When you come up against a team that throws shutouts in each of its tournament-clinching games this year — as West Chester did in conference, regional and national championship play — it’s hard not to be. You win some, you lose some and you try to bounce back next year.
“I don’t know if anything went right for us right from the very start,” Kinnison began. “We didn’t pitch very well early. That was pretty obvious, and they took advantage of that. Down 5-0 in the first, down 7-0 in the third against a guy like they had on the mound is not where you want to be. I’m very well aware we only had one strikeout, but that’s what he does. He pounds the strike zone, and we were just plagued too much here by hitting the ball in the air for too many routine outs.”
For West Chester in general and Prachniak in particular, the national championship represents a stunning turnaround from last year when the Rams went 22-21 to finish dead last in the Eastern Division of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference. Prachniak was brought in by Dr. Edward M. Matejkovic, West Chester’s director of athletics.
Prachniak had exactly zero experience as the head coach of a college baseball team. It worked out.
“That surreal feeling hasn’t sunk in yet,” Prachniak said. “That’s certainly how I feel right now. It’s going to take a lot to digest all this. I came into a situation where we had some talented baseball players that were just unbelievable kids. I just had the time of my life this year. To get here and beat the teams that we beat, all those teams are very talented.
“You need to have baseball talent, which we did have but also some of those ‘X-factor’ things of just the types of kids that we had, who were willing to play hard regardless of the circumstance. It’s a really cohesive group that pulled for each other throughout the whole season. It was genuine. It wasn’t just a baseball thing. It’s an off-the-field thing, too. It clicked all the way around.”