Last year, Knox baseball posted their best regular season record since 1992. They won eight more games than the year before. They qualified for the postseason for the first time in four seasons. And yet, the team walked off the North Diamond at Grinnell College disappointed on Friday, May 11.
The Fire were eliminated from the Midwest Conference tournament after a 12-0 loss to Grinnell, and faced a must-win situation following a 3-1 loss to eventual conference champ St. Norbert.
Knox (16-19, 7-5 MWC) played its first game against a potent Green Knights squad, which won 15 of its last 16 regular season games.
Freshman Nathaniel Grady (2-4, 3.53 ERA) got the start for Knox. He pitched four 2-3 innings, but surrendered two unearned runs due in part to defensive lapses by the Knox infield. Junior Gabe Ayers (18 app., 3.63 ERA) took over in relief, allowing one earned run in three 1-3 innings.
While Knox held the potent Knights offense (8.6 runs per game) to three runs, their offense produced just one run on four hits.
Junior Mike Schroeder went 2-for-3 and drove in Knox’s lone run, while junior Ryan Hoffman scored a run and drew a walk.
Freshman Kenny Blanchard (4-3, 7.18 ERA) started against Grinnell. He pitched four scoreless innings, but allowed four runs on five hits in the fifth. Three Knox pitchers combined to pitch the final four innings.
Grinnell finished the game with 16 hits.
Sophomore Erik Smoy went 3-for-3, while sophomore Jackson White* finished 1-for-2 with a pair of walks.
Knox played the Pioneers (17-20, 8-4 MWC) earlier in the week to decide home-field advantage for the tournament.
“For most of us on the team, this was our first taste of athletic success at Knox,” junior Kyle Walenga said. “So I wouldn’t say we exceeded expectations, but rather proved to ourselves that we can compete at a high level in our conference and in the Midwest.”
Statistical leaders included White, who batted .371; junior Caleb Weaver, who led the team with six home runs and 48 RBIs; and Ayers, who pitched 44 2-3 innings.
Few would argue that Knox overachieved this season. They were picked to finish third in the MWC South in the 2012 Preseason Coaches’ Poll. Among conference teams, they had the second highest team ERA (6.96), the second-lowest fielding percentage (.945) and had the second most offensive strikeouts (225).
But the team often found ways to win. Among conference teams, they finished the year with the third-best on-base percentage (.395) and the third-most steals (55).
On Wednesday, May 16, the MWC announced its all-league selections. Five Knox players were chosen: Grady, Smoy, White, Weaver and Hoffman.
Knox will return all five players next season.
“I’m already very excited thinking about the opportunity we’ll have next year. We’re returning … almost the entire lineup, and the whole pitching staff; and we hope we can complement our depth with the incoming recruiting class and transfers,” Walenga said.
Knox will lose seniors David Jewell, Dexter Brown and Kyle Grimes to graduation, but will bring back six players that started at least 30 games this season. They are the only team in the MWC that will return their entire pitching staff.
“This season is really only the beginning to something much bigger,” Walenga said. “We’re building a strong program that should only get better for years to come.”
St. Norbert will represent the MWC in the NCAA Division III baseball tournament, which runs from Sunday, May 16 through Thursday, May 20 at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
The Knights, who are making their third appearance in the NCAA Tournament, fell to No. 2 University of St. Thomas (Minneapolis, Minn.) 5-1 on the first day of play. They play Concordia University (Chicago) on day two.
*Note: Jackson White is Co-Sports for The Knox Student.