At midweek, the Emporia State baseball team knew it faced a stern road test in its final regular-season series before the start of the MIAA Tournament. The Hornets were taking on a Southwest Baptist team fighting to stay in the top eight in the Central region rankings.
Emporia State, 39-9 overall and 28-6, worked its way to No. 1 in the Central region and fifth in the NCBWA top 25 by being a scrappy team game after game. The location and the opponent had little bearing on how the Hornets attacked each team.
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A perfect encapsulation of the team's mentality came in mid-March against Fort Hays State in Hays, Kansas. Emporia State won the first game 15-1 in eight innings. Emporia State needed a three-run homer in the second game to win 5-4.
So far this season, the Hornets have had six walk-off wins, including three in which they trailed by two runs going into the bottom of the ninth.
In the first two games against Southwest Baptist, ranked seventh in the Central region, the Hornets made sure they didn’t need any late-inning magic to pull out a win. Emporia State won 11-9 in the first game and 12-1 in the second game.
The Hornets enter their regular-season finale on Sunday with the MIAA regular-season title already in their pocket.
MIAA Regular Season Champs pic.twitter.com/HD5Y6D9lE5— E-State Baseball (@ESUBaseball) April 29, 2017
“We have played pretty well,” said Emporia State senior shortstop Levi Ashmore. “The biggest thing is we have been relentless. There have been games we have had to come back a little bit when we faced a little adversity. That has been the difference between this year and last year.
“The pitchers are pitching well. We are hitting when we need to. We are playing hard.”
Ashmore epitomizes the scrappy nature of the Hornets, Fornelli said. He leads off for Emporia State and is doing his job by getting on base. He is hitting .356 and has a .468 on base percentage. He leads the team in runs scored with 62.
“You look at his stats and you think he can really run,” Fornelli said. “But he doesn’t really run. It looks like he has a great shortstop arm, but he doesn’t have that. He is just a dirt bag of a baseball player. He plays the right way each day and gives our team a chance to win.”
“You love to have those superstars,” Fornelli said. “We got a lot of good players, but no standout guys. This has probably been one of the most enjoyable springs I have ever had just because of the way we play.”
Fornelli, in his 14th season, has had some special teams. Two weeks ago, he became the winningest baseball coach in Emporia State history, surpassing Dave Bingham, who was 557-270-2 in 14 seasons. Fornelli is now 562-238.
Fornelli likes the family atmosphere of this year’s team.
“Our guys believe in each other,” he said. “They play for each other.”
And now comes the best time of the season for Division II baseball players on teams that have had an outstanding regular season. Emporia State is one of those teams.
The Hornets are wrapping up finals, and later this week, their full attention turns to the MIAA Tournament, which begins Thursday.
Because of their standing in the regional rankings, the Hornets will likely play in the Central regional, May 18 through May 22 and could be a host site. The regional winners advance to the eight-team, Division II Championship May 27 through June 3 in Grand Prairie, Texas.
“This time of year is a lot of fun,” Ashmore said. “The weather is supposed to be nice. You hope you are playing your best baseball of the year. It is like being a professional baseball player for a couple of weeks. Every pitch has so much on it. You want to play clean baseball, play hard and see what happens.
“These last tournaments are fun. You get to play the best teams in the business and get a chance to play in Texas. That will be a fun way to end our career.”
For a coach, there is always the worry, Fornelli said, that some seniors might be thinking too much about possibly playing their last game. Other things might pop into a player’s mind.
“It depends on what kind of team you have,” Fornelli said. “I have had teams in the past that were really good and somebody on the roster was worried about going home with their girlfriend for the rest of the summer or worried about going to summer ball.
“I really believe this team will battle to the end. There are going to be some tears no matter where we end, the conference tournament, regionals or the World Series because these guys have put their heart and soul into it this year. It doesn’t give us the right to win any game but they believe in themselves and will fight to the end.”
Defending national champions Nova Southeastern
A year ago, Nova Southeastern got hot at the right time and won its last six games to claim the 2016 Division II Baseball Championship despite having 16 losses on the season.
Nova Southeastern, 31-15, appears to be getting in that mode again as the Sharks have won their last six games. They concluded April with a three-game sweep of Florida Southern, which entered the series 30-10.
“This was a fantastic series for us,” said coach Greg Brown on the school’s website. “Doubleheaders are tough. Our guys kept fighting throughout the day, though, against a really good Florida Southern club. This was a signature series win that'll continue to help get us to where we want to go. I'm looking forward to enjoying this one, but there's still more work to do.”
The Sharks are on the verge of their third consecutive postseason berth with just one regular season series remaining. Nova Southeastern concludes its regular season with a doubleheader Sunday against Florida Tech and a single game against Florida Tech on Monday. The South regional runs May 18-22.