Through 22 years of futility and struggle of seeing teams repeat and repeat again, Knox baseball never lost the dream to be at the top of the Midwest Conference once again. The thirst to claim that top spot was finally quenched this weekend as Knox found the top of the conference for the first time since 1986. Yes, once again, the Knox College Prairie Fire are Champions of the Midwest Conference, and in unprecedented fashion, being the first team in conference to come from the loser’s bracket to win the championship.
By winning out the previous Sunday against Illinois College, Knox was able to lock up hosting the double-elimination tourney, giving home field advantage as long as they kept winning. The team faced the Ripon College Red Hawks, but gave up a tough loss. After losing the first game to the Red Hawks, Knox was forced to vacate Blodgett Field to drive to Monmouth College to face the Fighting Scots, who lost to the St. Norbert Green Knights earlier in the day. The loss put the Fire’s backs to the wall, a place they enjoyed all season. Knox defeated Monmouth soundly, 10-5, featuring a grand slam by sophomore catcher George Nicholson, and a great pitching performance by a platoon of freshman Justin Cutter, sophomore Spencer McNeil, and junior Sammy Almohandis.
“We learned from earlier,” said senior right fielder Paul Bennett. “We like playing like that, it motivates us to be perfect in what we do. Beating Ripon would have been nice, but that can create overconfidence. We like being the underdog.”
After the win at Monmouth, Knox came back on Saturday to face St. Norbert, who had been defeated by Ripon on Friday. The Green Knights were overconfident, putting one of their weaker pitchers on the mound, in anticipation for a two game series against Ripon after they had defeated the Fire. Freshman Jordan Ball took the mound for the Fire.
“After we went down 3-0 against Monmouth [in the first inning] then came back, we knew we weren’t ready to lay down and die,” said freshman pitcher Colin Davis. “After that, it was all great. Confidence was up, and we had already seen [all the teams in the tournament’s] best pitchers. It was about endurance, who could finish with the best they have.”
In a battle that lasted 10 innings, with both teams tied at two, Ball carried out a commanding performance, then was relieved by Almohandis, who kept it rolling until Knox could score four runs on a combination of good offense and bad defense. Knox won, shocking the Green Knights, who had outscored the Fire 32-10 on the season, but could not win when it counted.
Facing the 23rd ranked team in the nation in Ripon College, for the second time in two days, Knox was far more confident than many thought they had a right to be. Ripon was hot, having beat St. Norbert’s offensive juggernaut 6-2, and got some extra rest, showing up at the Blodge at about 11 a.m. Knox was on fire though and Ripon did not know what hit them. The first game, with Davis at the mound, was as hard fought as any in recent memory, as the Red Hawks ran into a suddenly mighty Prairie Fire defense, highlighted by several incredible plays by junior shortstop Adam Estergard, and a very solid day by Davis who pitched four innings, letting up only one run, before being relieved by sophomore Aaron Juarez. Almohandis came in in the ninth for sophomore McNeil, then let up another run. Knox pulled ahead for good in the fifth off a two RBI double by Bennett. The win was a wake up call to the Red Hawks, who seemingly planned to finish up quickly and head home for a nice celebration. It was not to be, though.
The second game was started by Cutter, who came in after going only one inning the previous day. This time, though, he was “lights out” as Davis put it. In the first inning, after giving up a double and an RBI single, Cutter struck out the next batter and made the next guy, Ripon’s number four hitter and one of the best hitters in the conference, Alex Duros ground into a double play, getting out of the inning. The game continued on in dogfight fashion as Knox scored three in the first inning off three hits, including an RBI single from senior Greg Leibach. But Ripon responded with one in the third and two in the fourth, pulling ahead off a two RBI single by their left fielder freshman Aaron Kastner.
Knox was able to make it 5-4 in the bottom of the fourth with a sacrifice RBI by sophomore Joey Graeff, driving in junior John Curtin, followed by a fielder’s choice by Estergard that drove in Nicholson. In the seventh inning, sophomore Jordan Ball came in to pitch the final three innings of the 13.2 he threw over the two days of contest. Ball was incredible, giving up nothing to the Red Hawks, striking out three. The closest Ripon came to scoring was in the seventh, when Ball came in with one man already on base, who advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt and fly. After that it was all Ball, as he struck out one in the eighth and Leibach made a great play in foul territory to close the inning. Ball did it again in the ninth, forcing a groundout to second base and a pop up to first, before striking out the final batter, Bryant Bullock, in tremendous fashion to end the game and seal the deal.
“Right at the end of the last game, I got the first two outs, and right there all the pressure melted off,” said Ball. “The last pitch, I threw a cutter to the outside, and it just ran away from him. A pretty good pitch on my part. I struck him out, and just got bombarded.”
In closing out the last game, Ball helped the Fire to win four out of five games in two days, something that has not happened in recent memory. They dominated the two teams with the best records in the conference, seizing the championship, a first for Coach Jami Isaacson. Isaacson was named Southern Division Coach of the Year for leading the team on its historic charge; all this from a club that many considered to be in a rebuilding year. Veterans, as well as some new guys, did not see this as something definite, but still there is always hope, especially in baseball.
“Before games started, I thought we were pretty talented,” said Bennett. “We had an awesome lineup, and had only lost two guys from the year before, so we looked really good.”
Bennett did have some nervousness, having not seen some of the newer guys because of football, but as he said after he first saw what they had, “We had the potential.”
Bennett, in addition to winning the championship, also received the Southern Division Player of the Year award, a year after ranking second in voting. Davis shared some of the pre-season optimism Bennett had, but never foresaw this outcome.
“I had a little more confidence in our offense and defense than in our pitching,” he said. “I knew we would be a little more solid than we had been in a while, but not this good. I remember talking to J-Ball in April, that we have to step up, take the pressure off the other guys who were struggling.”
Leading the team to a 5-5 record in conference and an 11-4 record after April 20, the freshman duo made good on their intent.
“I didn’t think we could get in the tournament, let alone win it at the beginning of the season,” said Ball. “But our hitting was good, and our pitching was very good. We had the potential, and we showed it the whole season.”
Knox looks to continue its winning ways as the championship brings with it the added bonus of an automatic berth in the NCAA D-III National Championship Regional at Oshkosh, Wis., despite the fact that their first game is against top seeded University of St.Thomas. Knox looks to continue its winning ways, ignoring any rankings.
“They’re just ball players like us,” said Bennett. “We all play with a ball and a stick. Rankings are overrated anyway. St. Norbert is an example of that. [St. Thomas] got one, we got six, whoop dee doo. We’re in it to win it. If we lose, we tip our cap, and know we did the best we could.”
They are not the kind of team that is just happy to be there. With coach Isaacson driving them, the Knox College Prairie Fire, overlooked coming into the conference championships, looks to cause a couple more ulcers.
“We were underdogs in our tournament, so we’re just going to have to go out there and prove something,” said Ball.