Baseball: JJC title a triumph for the underdog
May 25, 2012 11:48PM
JJC coach Wayne King, surounded by his coaching staff, holds the NJCAA Division III championship plaque. | Supplied photo
Updated: July 3, 2012 10:17AM
Joliet Junior College freshman second baseman Luke Andrade (Lincoln-Way West) did not make the error intentionally in order to be the hero with his bat, although his teammates were more than willing to needle him about it.
In Wednesday’s championship game of the NJCAA Division III World Series in Tyler, Texas, Andrade bobbled a ground ball with the bases loaded and two outs in the top of the 10th inning, allowing Niagara to take a 5-4 lead over the Wolves.
But as fate would have it, freshman third baseman Dakota Brown (Minooka) tripled into the left-field corner to drive home the tying run with one out in the bottom of the 10th, bringing Andrade to the plate. Sure enough, he delivered a long sacrifice fly to right to give JJC (37-29) a 6-5 victory and its third Division III national championship under coach Wayne King.
Incidentally, that also helped secure the tournament MVP award for Andrade, who went 7-for-16 with four RBI in the Wolves’ 4-0 run.
“I was thankful to get the opportunity to redeem myself,” Andrade said. “I knew if it came down to it, I was not going to fail the team. I tried to be short and quick and get the ball to the outfield. As soon as Dakota hit his ball, I knew I was going to get the opportunity to put the ball in play and win the game.”
Andrade climaxed one of the wildest championship games imaginable. Yes, the Wolves had the luxury of knowing that as the unbeaten team they could lose that game and still come back and win the World Series the next night. But that didn’t lessen their resolve.
JJC went ahead 3-2 in the bottom of the eighth. With two outs in the top of the ninth, Niagara notched a run-scoring single to tie and an RBI double to go ahead 4-3. With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Rick Gazarek (Plainfield Central) singled home the tying run, Trey Russell sliding home safely on a very close play.
Then in the 10th, the unearned run allowed Niagara to regain the lead before those decisive JJC heroics in the bottom of the inning.
“The last three innings were an image of our season, up and down, having to battle back,” associate head coach Gregg Braun said. “To say it was wild would be an understatement.
“The top of the ninth completely turned things around. Then Rick’s hit in the bottom of the ninth, and Trey’s slide, it was a bang-bang play. We watched the video, and he just managed to get his left hand in there.”
First baseman Dan Eliopulos, catcher Casey Papp (Providence) and pitcher Trevor Vermillion (Joliet Township) joined Andrade as all-tournament selections. Vermillion made two starts, Jared Steck and Alex Parks (Plainfield Central) one each. Austin Vazquez (Providence) won two games in relief, including the championship, and Mike Hamilton (Lockport) and Jonathan Rosario contributed in relief.
What really happened is that an entire team, which had struggled all season to find consistency, ironed out lingering issues at exactly the right time.
“The kids played really well, and the last two innings of the championship game were exceptional,” King said. “We hung in there and battled back twice. We put ourselves in a bad spot and had to dig out of the hole, and we rose to the occasion.
“It was a difficult season. With this team, we went down there as a coaching staff with no real expectations. We said nothing would shock us because of the reality of the regular season. But these kids put it together.”
King has taken teams to Tyler that consistently had outstanding regular seasons and knew they would finish among the very best. But these Wolves were underdogs.
“Nobody at the tournament had anything close to the number of losses we had,” King said. “It’s a credit to the kids that they could get hot at the right time.”
JJC came from behind to beat host Tyler 7-5 for its second win at the Series. “After we got that victory, we said for sure now anything can happen,” King said.
“The kids had a mind-set. All I did was kind of stay out of the way. We stole a couple of bases and pulled a couple of hit-and-runs, but they’re the ones who went up to the plate and did the hitting. I let them go about their business. I didn’t have to make a lot of decisions.”
A couple of weeks ago, the Wolves opened the best-of-3 Region IV Championship Series with a 9-7 loss to Milwaukee Area Tech. They stranded 19 runners — in a nine-inning game, a near impossibility. But they came back to win the last two, then four in Texas to finish with six straight victories.
“After that loss, it set in that we may not even have to go to Texas and may not be in a spot to win the national title,” Andrade said. “That, I think, is when things really changed. We got to Texas, but while getting there was a good thing, we knew we had more to accomplish.
“We knew we would be underdogs because other teams’ records were by far better than ours. But we didn’t let it affect us because we knew it was like a new season, a fresh start. It felt good to play to our potential, never give up.”
A few days before the Region IV Championship Series, Andrade told me these Wolves may be a lot like his favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals, in getting hot at the right time. How prophetic was that?
“That’s why I coach here, to see kids be successful,” King said. “They had fun. I told them, this is something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”