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Brian Francis | | May 26, 2014

Francis: New chapter to Midwest rivalry

APPLETON, Wis. -- Neuroscience Group Field at Fox Cities Stadium had planned to provide a fireworks show following Sunday’s games. But, Wisconsin-Whitewater did not get the memo. The Warhawks made sure they turned out the lights on St. Thomas (Minn.) before putting on an offensive firework show in the eighth inning, scoring six runs off five hits and two Tommie errors to earn a spot in the 2014 national title game, winning 10-3.

“First thing, you give credit to Whitewater,” Tommie head coach Chris Olean said. “They played a good ball game today… give them credit, they outplayed us today.”

With a 4-1 lead in the top of the eighth, St. Thomas scored a pair of runs, cutting the lead to 4-3. But the Whitewater answer was the six-run eighth inning that lit up the scoreboard and lifted the Warhawks to victory.

“They’re a good hitting team,” Tommie catcher J.D. Dorgan said. “I wouldn’t say he was missing his spots, they were just putting the barrel on the ball.”

The two programs, Whitewater and St. Thomas, are perennial powerhouses in numerous sports with each school displaying a magnitude of hardware in their respective school’s trophy case. The two baseball programs locked horns on Sunday afternoon with a berth in the national championship on the line under the lights at Fox Cities stadium as the last two unbeaten teams in the national finals.

With the sun setting behind the grandstands prior to the first pitch, the sky provided a picturesque backdrop over the Fox Cities. The scene would best be described, as appropriately so, a purple sky. Underneath, a sea of purple Warhawks and Tommies faithful filled the stands while their beloved squads were decked out in contrasting purple and black uniforms.

In close geographic proximity, it is not uncommon for these two schools to meet. And with their incredible athletic success, it is also not common for them to reunite in postseason competition. Since the turn of the century, the two schools have combined for 17 national championships in a total of five different sports.

Three of the past four years, the men’s basketball title has went to one of these two schools. Whitewater has been in the Stagg Bowl every year since 2005, with the exception of 2012 – of course, the Tommies took their spot before losing to Mount Union. Both schools have at least one volleyball national title since 2000, while the Tommies and Warhawks each sent their softball team to the national finals this weekend in Tyler, Texas. And then, of course, there is baseball.

St. Thomas has a pair of championships in 2001 and '09, while Whitewater won their lone championship in 2005. It has become tradition for these two clubs to come together in late May for the NCAA tournament, and in this case, the national finals.

The major story line around Wisconsin involves Whitewater becoming the first program, at any level, to win a national title in football, men’s basketball, and baseball in the same season. Florida won in both football and men’s basketball in 2008, while Whitewater did the same in '12. The Warhawks were making a run at sweeping all three in 2012, but their story died on their home field in Regionals – losing to St. Thomas for the second time that weekend and watching the Tommies celebrate on their home field.

The Warhawks had got the best of the Tommies in the earlier part of the 2000s, knocking off the St, Thomas in 2005, '08, and '11, ending the Tommies' season in both ’08 and ’11 and going to win their school’s first national title in baseball in 2005.

As the last two unbeaten teams remaining in the 2014 national finals, one of the Midwest monsters would earn a spot in the championship game, with the distinct advantage of having to be defeated twice consecutively on Tuesday.

The Tommies scored first following a brief scare in the top of the fourth as Tim Kuzniar hit a line drive back at Brock Liston, instantly dropping him to the ground. With trainers taking an extensive look at the senior hurler, he decided to stay in the game and tossed a couple warm up pitches to a very respectful standing ovation and support from both schools.

“Whenever something like that happens it stifles any kind of enthusiasm there is in the game, and I’m sure on both sides,” Whitewater head coach John Vodenlich said. “But I’m glad he is healthy and happy again. And he’s pretty darn good looking, so he could use a little cut here and there, to even out the playing field for the rest of us.”

Liston allowed another single, walked a batter, and then a bases-loaded balk brought home the first run of the game, giving the Tommies the 1-0 edge. Perhaps still a bit rattled, the Warhawks made the pitching change and Liston left with another standing ovation from all – including St. Thomas players and supporters in the stands.

“I think for me, the key was the desire that Brock Liston showed,” Vodenlich continued, “not wanting to come out of the game. The belief that he could still keep us in the game. And, trust me, he came out kicking and screaming. That kind of will, that kind of attitude, I think kind of propelled our guys.”

“We just need better at bats,” Olean said. “I don’t care about the batting averages at all. I care about winning and I care about having good at bats. As long as their competing and fighting for every out, that’s really been our focus…we just need to compete, scrap, and try to find ways to put runs across.”

A couple key double plays and getting out of jams allowed the Warhawks to keep the Tommies off the board most of the game. Whitewater will now take Monday off and await the lone team that survives Monday’s contests.

“I don’t think we look at it at all,” Vodenlich said about being one game away from his second national title. “I don’t think it’s a part of who we are in the past, I don’t think it’s a part of who we are right now. We don’t count outs when we get in the ninth, we play the kind of baseball that got us there. Our guys are going to stay loose, stay confident. And they’re going to show up and be ready to play on Tuesday.”

“We’ll be fine,” Olean continued. “I think the big focus for us is tomorrow and play better baseball.”