Thursday marked the start of Division II baseball’s postseason. The road to Grand Prairie will be a tough battle, as there are simply no bad teams remaining in any region.
While each region presents its own version of postseason drama and action, some storylines stand out more than others.
That is the case with the Midwest Region.
The No. 1 seed in the Midwest is not only a newcomer to that seed, but the NCAA postseason. This marks the program’s first-ever trip to the regionals after holding the No. 1 seed every week of the regional rankings.
Jordan Bischel came in two seasons ago, and immediately turned around the Northwood baseball program. The Timberwolves now have three consecutive winning seasons, something unheard of on the Midland, Michigan campus. They put up a record-setting 43-11 season, ending the year on a nine-game winning streak, including a clean sweep through the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament, their first-ever regular season and tournament titles.
The Timberwolves are backed by the GLIAC Pitcher of the Year, Northwood’s first pitcher to ever earn the honor. Tyler Jandron won the GLIAC triple crown, finishing with a conference-best 11 wins, 88 strikeouts and 2.31 ERA. David Vinsky was the GLIAC Freshman of the Year, the first Northwood player to win the award since 2005. His .455 batting average led all of DII. It should come as no surprise that Bischel took home GLIAC Coach of the Year honors. And yes, he is the first Northwood head coach to win the award.
This is the season that accolades seemingly keep coming for the Timberwolves. It seems like the Northwood express wants to keep rolling straight to Grand Prairie.
Its first test in the regionals will be No. 8-seeded Kentucky Wesleyan. The Panthers have been to the NCAA tournament before. It just happens to be nearly 30 years ago.
The Panthers finished 27-22 this season and essentially needed a miracle to make their first NCAA postseason since 1988.
That’s just what they got.
Sitting one game over .500 entering the Great Midwest Athletic Conference tournament, KWC needed to win to get into regionals. The No. 3-seeded Panthers swept through the tournament, including two upsets, first over No. 1 seed Trevecca and then No. 2 Malone in the championship game. Scoring the winning run on a wild pitch is about as close to a miracle the baseball gods will allow.
Head coach Todd Lillpop has seen steady improvement each season since recording a 16-win season in 2013. They improved by 15 wins to 31 in 2014, topped that by one in 2015, and had a program-best 36 wins last season. Despite breaking the three-year streak of 30-plus win seasons, the Panthers find themselves with a chance at a regional title.
While KWC and Northwood are experiencing program firsts, Saint Joseph’s College is experiencing a last. The Midwest’s No. 7 seed is making its 11th NCAA postseason appearance, and its first since 2013. The Pumas left for the Northwood campus Wednesday for practice.
However, they will have no school to return to.
In February, Saint Joseph’s announced they would be shutting the doors at the conclusion of the second semester, as May 6 marked graduation day. A 34-20 record, plus a deep run to the semifinals in the Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament got Saint Joseph’s an at-large bid.
The Puma Pride will live on for just a bit longer.
And to make the storybook finale more gripping, Saint Joseph’s first round opponent is Southern Indiana, who are ranked No. 19 nationally. They were also the team that the Pumas defeated in their final game at Gil Hodges Field, named after Saint Joseph’s most notable baseball alum. 120 former Pumas joined together on the field to throw out one last ceremonial first pitch.
When any team makes any tournament in any sport at any level, we always hear something along the lines of, “they are dangerous because for them, there is no tomorrow.” Nearly every time that phrase has been used, it's simply a cliche expression.
Except for now. For the GLVC Coach of the Year Rick O'Dette and his Pumas, there literally is no tomorrow. And that could make them the biggest underdog to watch this weekend.