The best quality Central Missouri will have when it heads into its elimination game against Franklin Pierce 3 p.m. ET Tuesday in the Division II Baseball Championship in Cary, North Carolina, is its resiliency.
The Mules are coming off a tough, 4-3 loss to Lander on Saturday at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in which the winning run scored with one out in the bottom of the ninth.
Playing in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) has prepared Central Missouri for this situation. Before Saturday, the only loss for the Mules in their last 16 games was 2-1 in 11 innings to Washburn in their third game in the MIAA Tournament.
Central Missouri responded with a 16-8 win over Washburn in the very next game. The Mules went on to win the conference tournament and then swept the Central Regional with four straight victories.
“We have been in every situation you can possibly be in, extra inning games, one-run games, being down early, being down late. We have seen it all. There are no surprises,” said Central Missouri senior first baseman Bennett Oliver a couple of days before the start of the Division II Baseball Championship.
“I think it is being resilient, everybody doing their job. We have a formula for what we are trying to do. It takes every one of us. It takes all our pitchers, from our starters to our bullpen. It takes all our guys to stay hooked up and play good defense.”
The Mules have the team personality to play loose in their most important game so far in this season.
“We have a bunch of characters,” Oliver said. “You will probably see guys dancing in the dugout because they feel like dancing. The hardest part is practice. We run and workout so when we play games, we get to have fun. We have a very loose team and a lot of big personalities.”
Working hard and sticking with the plan have put the Mules in position to be one of only eight Division II baseball teams still playing.
The last time Central Missouri reached the Division II Baseball Championship was 2011. The Mules had a goal to return this season, but the season started a bit rocky by Central Missouri’s lofty standards. The Mules lost six of their first seven games.
“We kept getting better,” Central Missouri coach Kyle Crookes said. “It is a growth process. It didn’t happen overnight. To be honest, our early season record didn’t reflect the good things we were doing. To the players’ credit, they continued to work and practice hard and stayed after it.
“The results started to change based on their relentlessness and resiliency in terms of how to approach what they did every day. They continue to work towards getting better.”
After the rough start, Central Missouri won 10 of its next 11 games and have only suffered back-to-back losses once since that start of the season.
“They have done everything I have asked the last two years,” Crookes said. “I am certainly proud of them. They have earned the right to be here. It certainly feels good to be back where people perceive you to be year in and year out.
“I know the other teams we are playing are great teams. I enjoy being around my team and taking the field with this team every day. That is what I look forward to. Other teams will provide great competition.”
The week-long Division II Baseball Championship concludes Saturday, June 4. Central Missouri would like to be one of the two teams left playing.
“It is going to be something we remember for a long time,” Oliver said. “There are not too many people in the country who can hang their cleats up with a win and go out on top. It is something we have in our grasp.
“It is going to be fun because obviously we are playing great competition. We get to see where we stack up. It is an exciting time.”
Millersville returns to Division II Baseball Championships
Before the season started, Millersville baseball coach Jon Shehan knew he was putting a veteran group of players on the field who had experience playing in championship games.
But this group of Marauders had never won a regional championship. That changed on May 23, when Millersville defeated Mercyhurst 6-2 in the Atlantic Region championship game. It put Millersville in the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship for the first time since 2011.
“I think that is why we all do what we do, at least the guys who have their priority straight in this business, to see the look on the players’ faces as they celebrate,” Shehan said a few days before the start of the 2016 NCAA Division II Baseball Championship. “It is all about giving these kids a great experience and providing an opportunity for it.”
Shehan said this team shows the same mental toughness as the 2011 team that reached the national championship tournament.
“There is the same drive to win but it goes deeper than that,” Shehan said. “If it won’t go their way, you won’t see it. They are very even keel from an emotional aspect. The mental toughness has probably been the most consistent throughout the year.”
In the first game at the 2016 NCAA Division II Baseball Championship, the Marauders showed their mental toughness by pulling out a 1-0 victory over Angelo State.
The lone run came in the top of the seventh. It started with a one-out single by junior Jeremy Musser. He stole second. Moved to third on a ground out and then scored on a wild pitch.
On the mound, junior Brandon Miller tossed a complete game, five-hit shutout to improve to 12-1 on the season.
Millersville, 51-5, returns to action 7 p.m. ET Monday in a winner’s bracket game against Cal Poly Pomona.
The way Millersville won on Saturday is similar to the way it has played all season.
“From a baseball aspect, we are a well-balanced team,” Shehan said. “We got speed, we got power, we got pitching. We play good defense. Our bullpen has done well. When you win 50 games, all those things have to come together and all those pieces have to work together.”
Shehan understand the competition the Marauders will face this week is going be tough. His team is ready for the challenge.
“There is a lot of talent there and a lot of talented coaching staffs there,” Shehan said. “You have to play great baseball. It goes back to your mentality. In 2011, we were happy to be there.
“This time around we have a veteran team who has been in six championship games over the past four years, whether it was conference tournaments or regional tournaments. They know what it takes to win on the big stage and in pressure situations. Hopefully, that provides a little bit of insurance for us and help the guys get through in some of these big situations.”
Amazing first round
The mark of a great championship tournament is the competitiveness of each game. The opening round of the 2016 Division II Baseball Championship couldn’t have been closer. All four games were decided by one run.
Nova Southeastern beat Franklin Pierce 4-3, which was the same score of Lander’s victory over Central Missouri. Cal Poly Pomona beat Southern Indiana 2-1 and Millersville defeated Angelo State 1-0.
It means there are no clear-cut favorites. All eight teams still have a legitimate shot at winning a national championship. Each game will probably come down to a play or two.
Bottom line: If you are a baseball fan and near Cary, North Carolina, you should head to the USA Baseball National Training Complex and check out the best baseball NCAA Division II has to offer.