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Brian Francis | | May 24, 2014

Francis: Strong minds key to Baldwin Wallace success

baldwin-wallace-winners-524.jpg Baldwin Wallace celebrates with head coach Brian Harrison after earning a trip to the DII finals.

All the headlines this weekend have centered around the four schools with national titles, the seven schools with national finals experience, the seven schools ranked nationally, and the seven schools with at least 35 wins. What about the eighth school?

While the Cinderella references are trendy and cliché, the Yellow Jackets do not exactly fit the part of the classic fairy tale. Baldwin Wallace has faced the 13th toughest schedule in the nation, while posting a 16-9 mark against 10 different opponents that qualified for the NCAA tournament.

“I think being in the OAC helps,” freshmen Logan Hefferman said. “To get that competition gives us confidence to know whoever we play, we’ve seen opponents just as good or better.”

And the OAC was particularly tough this year, sending four schools to the NCAA tournament, a Division III first. The Yellow Jackets journey to Appleton started a few weeks back, squeezing into the final spot of the OAC tournament thanks to help from their cross-town rival John Carroll.

“It’s probably the first time in 100 years that Baldwin Wallace was cheering for Carroll,” BW Sports Information Director Kevin Ruple said.

Following the sweep of Capital, the Yellow Jackets had to wait a few more days due to bad weather pushing the John Carroll/Muskingum twin bill to Sunday. One Muskingum victory would give Ohio Northern the final spot in the OAC tourney, but the Yellow Jackets biggest rival came through with a sweep and putting Baldwin Wallace in the field for the OAC title.

“Definitely tough trying to root for John Carroll,” senior Kyle Chontos recalls, “It was really an emotional couple of days. We had to sweep Capital just to have a chance and then hope for them to sweep.”

After falling to Marietta in the first round, Baldwin Wallace came through the loser’s bracket knocking out Marietta and Heidelberg before forcing a championship game with John Carroll. After dropping the OAC title game, and no automatic berth, the Yellow Jackets were highly uncertain about their future.

“We got back from Marietta and we weren’t really sure what was going to happen next,” Hefferman continues, “So I packed my stuff up and drove four hours home to Cincinnati. I was home for about eight hours, just enough time to go to bed. I got a call about two in the morning and it was told, ‘We’re in! We’re in!’ So I got back on the road and drove four hours back the next morning.”

On the night of the May 11th, the Yellow Jackets received the call they would be going to the championship tournament for the first time since 1991, receiving an at large bid to the Mid-Atlantic Regional in Moosic, Pa.

“The guys all got together and hung out and were ready to say our goodbyes,” said junior Kyle Chontos, “we saw we were projected and thought, ‘Hey, we might get in. We got to wait up and see.’ And then we got in and we all went nuts and it was a good time.”

“I actually had a vacation planned for that morning,” said sophomore Mark Zimmerman, “We were all packed for vacation and we had to wait for that decision to determine whether we were going on vacation or not. So everyone was packed, and then we had to unpack.”

Zimmerman agrees it was not a bad thing and, in fact, he still ended up with a vacation at a different destination. The Yellow Jackets swept through their Regional earning a trip to Appleton, Wisconsin, reaching the national finals for the first time in school history.

“It’s almost like we got a second wind after we found out we got the at-large bid. We just came together and it was almost like a new season when we got that bid into the playoffs,” senior pitcher Joe Capadona said, “We went through the regional and never had a doubt that we were going to win that regional. We’re just trying to take it one pitch at a time and not let the situation get any bigger than us.”

Baldwin Wallace swept through the Moosic, Pa. Regional, finishing by overcoming an early 6-1 deficit to Illinois Wesleyan in the championship to advance to the national tournament.

In Friday’s quarterfinal, the Yellow Jackets trailed 4-2 in the seventh to Emory before stringing together a pair of runs in the top of the seventh and then the eventual game-winning run in the eighth to advance with a 5-4 victory.

“It’s crazy, they’re not nervous at all,” head coach Brian Harrison said, “They’re having fun. We’re just playing baseball, not worrying about the big picture, just playing one pitch at a time.”

“I didn’t try to change anything, didn’t try do anything special,” Capadona said following the win, “really just focused on what makes me good and execute every pitch, just take it one pitch at a time.”

The win pairs the Yellow Jackets up with a hot St. Thomas squad that has just two losses in as many months, winning 29-of-31, including a 10-0 win in the opener against top-ranked Linfield on Friday.

“Baseball, it’s a simple game, right? It comes down to pitching, defense, and timely hitting. It’s the formula for whoever we’re playing,” Harrison continued, “It doesn’t matter if we’re playing one of the weaker teams in our conference or one of the greater teams like St. Thomas. You don’t play against your opponent, you play against the game.”

“We’ve always been taught, it doesn’t matter who we’re playing," Zimmerman said. "We’re playing against ourselves. We’re playing against the game.”

At this point in the season, down to the final six teams, everyone is going to have nearly equal talent and preparation. Aside from execution, it is the mental game that will set teams apart. And the Baldwin Wallace group feels they have been trained to execute mentally and physically.

“The mental game is something coach preaches all the time,” Chontos said, “We practice our mental game, we read books, we watch film about it and it’s something you have to practice just like your physical practice and that’s what separates you from the other teams.

"When you make a mistake, it is how you react to that mistake and you don’t compile those mistakes. Being able to be tough mentally, you can beat anybody.”

“Our coaches stress the two things you can control are effort and attitude,” Zimmerman said. “We always say our mental game is the only thing we can control. So if you have that under control you kind of let everything else play out.”

Harrison’s approach in his first four years has led the Yellow Jackets to back-to-back-to-back record win totals. The younger players are excited for what the future holds as they continue to drill the mental game into their daily routines.

“My first year as a freshman, we start five freshmen and we end up breaking the school record for wins in our first season and we’ve broke it every year since,” said Chontos on being a part of Harrison’s first recruiting class, “These groups of juniors and seniors have been through it all and laid the foundation. The program is definitely on the upswing and now and we’re not a newbie now. They’ll have to deal with us for years to come.”