Winona State has one more test for title
Warriors ready to cap program's first NCAA tournament with win
CARY, N.C. -- John Wenker only pitched one game in high school in front of the Winona State coaching staff. Let’s just say the impression he left was far from dazzling.
“The only game I pitched that they came to watch was in the state tournament,” Wenker said. “I didn’t even make it out of the first inning.”
Wenker still made the team. In fact, the junior was on the mound Thursday night as a reliever in the NCAA Division II national tournament against Southern Connecticut State, throwing five innings of shutout ball as the Warriors knocked off the Owls 7-5 and advanced to the national championship game.
The side story told by Wenker, who improved to 7-2 and has recorded 64 strikeouts this season, represents what WSU baseball is all about in that sometimes the unexpected happens.
WSU wasn’t even expected to be in North Carolina this week for its first national tourney trip. The Warriors didn’t win the regular season Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference title and lost in the conference tournament championship game to St. Cloud State by a 5-3 score.
But here are the No. 16 Warriors (42-17) now, one win away from leaving town as the best team in DII baseball in 2011. A win against fourth-ranked West Florida (51-9) at noon Saturday at the USA Baseball National Training Complex is all that stands in the way of championship glory for the Warriors.
It doesn’t matter that this is their first trip to the national tourney either. The Warriors have proven they belong on this stage, knocking off third-ranked Central Missouri (4-3) and second-ranked Mount Olive (9-3) before putting away ninth-ranked SCSU to punch a ticket to the final.
“We have had big wins and bad losses, but the ride has been a lot of fun,” sophomore catcher Kyle Sill said. “It’s unreal that we are playing for the championship. I can’t wait to play the game.”
The Warriors had not won a postseason game in the NCAA tournament until this year, but their history of success is impressive. As an NAIA team, the Warriors made the NAIA national tourney six times and have not had a losing season since 1982 when they finished 20-25. That is a string of 29 consecutive winning seasons.
Head coach Kyle Poock was asked what it means for the program to reach new heights. He threw in a little humor in his response.
“It means when we go home people will think we are as good as our basketball team,” Poock said. “Our basketball tournament had a couple of good runs (winning national titles in 2006 and 2008). But seriously, our guys have worked hard, on the field and in the classroom, and everyone has bought into what we are trying to do here.”
Winona State is batting .314 as a team and Tony Mueller has led the way. The junior is hitting .388 with 33 RBI while senior Joe Kley is batting .354 and has hit 11 home runs while driving in 65 runs.
Junior Kodey Simon is the top pitcher on the staff, fashioning an 8-2 record. He has recorded 64 strikeouts and has walked only 15 batters.
Defensively, the Warriors have committed 88 errors, and Poock said the play of the defense has been a key to the team’s success.
“Our defense has been pretty good all year,” Poock said. “We haven’t lost many games because of our defense. We know on Saturday we have to keep our errors down and minimize mistakes because West Florida has a pretty good team.”
There have been times this season when WSU has struggled, including losing four of its first seven games. They also dropped three consecutive games in late April and three of four to start the month of May.
No one ever hit the panic button, though. Even on Thursday night, when the Warriors trailed 4-0 in the first inning, they battled back and won the game over the Owls.
Sill said the reason for the Warriors’ resiliency is simple.
“Our team is loose and relaxed and we never worry too much when we get down,” Sill said. “We go out there and try to have and play our game. If we do that [against West Florida] we will have a chance to win.”