The Northwood Timberwolves are the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference regular season champions.
That is a sentence that has never been written before in the annals of GLIAC history.
Entering the 2017 season, the Timberwolves were projected to finish fifth in the GLIAC. A roster with 23 returners and some veteran senior leadership knew they could do better than that. Just how much better was the question.
“Definitely not what I expected,” senior third baseman Daniel Pulver said. “It’s been one of my personal goals having been here since a freshman. But, after having our year last year thinking we were going to be pretty good, we underachieved. Turning last year into this year, coming out competing every weekend and having fun winning a lot more games than we’re losing has been a blessing. I’m not going to say it’s come out of nowhere, but it wasn’t what I expected to have happen this year.”
One has to go back to 1990 to find Northwood’s last 30-win season. Heading into 2017, the Timberwolves had just six winning seasons in that 26-year span.
Two of them belonged to head coach Jordan Bischel.
Bischel became head coach in 2015 and almost immediately, the culture changed. The Timberwolves made a 10-win improvement from 2014, reeling off 28 wins. Last season, they produced their second consecutive winning season, a feat last pulled off in the 1989-90 seasons.
“He’s completely changed the culture,” Pulver said. “He simplifies the game for everybody. Not every hitter is the same; they aren’t going to have the same approach. He personally works with guys on what they’re going to be best throughout the course of the year. He’s really good at getting everybody involved in a way that they’ll do their best.”
Pulver is one of two remaining four-year seniors on the team, joining Larry Wood as the last two holdovers from the Joe Di Benedetto era. A lot has changed since then. They have talented transfers and freshmen. They have a lot more wins. But they also have a newfound chemistry.
“My freshman year we had a diverse group of guys and we weren’t close as a team,” Pulver said. “Once coach Bischel got here, he immediately preached being close. We didn’t have to be everybody’s best friend, but had to work together as a team. The team aspect has really changed since he got here.”
Now, the Timberwolves are GLIAC regular season champs. They won a program-record 39 games, reaching the highest ranking their program has ever seen, breaking the top 10 at No. 9 in the most recent NCBWA poll. They also earned their first No. 1 Midwest Region ranking, an honor they’ve held onto for three straight weeks.
Pulver has been a driving force. The switch-hitter is amid a career-year, batting .344 with nine home runs and 46 RBI. He’s modeled his game after another switch-hitting third baseman, his favorite player growing up.
“Chipper Jones,” Pulver said. “Me being a switch-hitting third baseman, I tried to watch him as much as I could just to take away anything from his game and put it into mine.”
Pulver closed out the regular season as a senior should. Putting the exclamation mark on a GLIAC-clinching sweep, Pulver went three-for-three with two home runs and six RBI.
“That’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” Pulver said. “It’s probably the happiest baseball memory that I had. I was even jumping up and down rounding the bases, definitely a happy moment.”
He hasn’t been alone at the plate. Senior Connor Foley is hitting .401 with 18 doubles and six home runs. Freshman David Vinsky has taken the GLIAC by storm. His .444 batting average is fourth in DII, while his 23 doubles have him tied for second.
And then there is the pitching.
They are deep. Five starters have made at least eight starts, but junior Tyler Jandron leads the way. Winner of the GLIAC Triple Crown, Jandron led the conference in wins (10), ERA (2.61) and strikeouts (80).
“They’ve just put in such hard work all year,” Pulver said of the rotation and bullpen. “Especially in the winter when we can’t get outside because we are in Northern Michigan. They put their work in, hit their spots and stayed the course.”
Pulver and Jandron, along with the rest of the Timberwolves, went to work on Thursday in the opening round of the GLIAC Tournament. Jandron went the distance, striking out eight en route to a two-hit shutout over Hillsdale. Pulver only had one hit, a double, but combined with two sacrifice flies, he drove in four of Northwood's 14 runs.
Now, the Timberwolves hope to continue their historic season. First they continue in the GLIAC and then an all-but certain appearance in the NCAA postseason, a dream that may not have seemed possible to Pulver four years ago.
If this team plans on reaching those goals, they will do it the way Bischel has taught them.
“We’re not changing anything that we do,” Pulver said. “We make sure we’re still having fun and whatever happens, happens. We’re not really trying to look forward to anything, we’re just trying to play each game with as much fun as we can.”