A morning chill filled the air on Monday, May 10, at two different locations within the Midwest. The first was at IU Southeast as almost 900 college seniors prepared to complete a long academic odyssey with the university’s annual commencement festivities. Out of the small army of college graduates that day, eight instead spent the day representing IUS at VA Memorial Stadium in Chillicothe, OH., for the final day of the River States Conference Baseball Tournament.
The road was a winding one for the #18 Grenadiers all season long. Beginning with a 5-10 start due to the COVID-19 pandemic shortening typical preseason training and myriad injuries to key contributors, the Grenadiers rose from the ashes like a phoenix. Between March 1 and May 2, the Grenadiers went 35-3 and 26-1 in conference play, easily capturing the RSC Regular-Season title, the top seed in the RSC Tournament, and an automatic bid to the NAIA Opening Round.
The adversity was only held at bay for much of the season before springing back to life towards the end of the regular season, claiming the remaining season of senior first baseman and RSC Player of the Year Matt Monahan due to undisclosed medical issues. The Grenadiers appeared to handle losing the key lefty bat of Monahan fairly well as they took their first two contests of the tournament against Midway and IU Kokomo 14-5 and 8-4, respectively. The two victories meant little in comparison to the tournament’s second day on Saturday, May 8, when they began with their first of ultimately three matchups against fellow conference powerhouse Point Park.
The postseason matchup was considered the contest to watch, especially considering the Grenadiers hopes of a perfect conference record were dashed courtesy of an 8-0 loss to the Pioneers earlier this season. While the two sides exchanged blows early, the Pioneers pulled away late to advance to the RSC title game 6-4.
“I wouldn’t say we struggled, but more times than not in the postseason, the team that scores first wins most of the time,” head coach Ben Reel said.
Backs Against The Wall
The loss was only the start of a long second day for the Grenadiers as they returned for the final game of the day to confront Asbury, with both squads on the brink of elimination. Despite scoring a pair of runs in second, the Eagles quickly tied the score in the bottom half, starting with a Kaden Dugle two-run home run off junior right-hander Brenden Bube.
After plunking Austin Dick and allowing a bunt single to Nathaniel Frank, Trevor Campbell by ripping a ball to the left-centerfield wall for a go-ahead two-run triple, helping the Eagles soar to a 4-2 lead.
Reel handed the ball over to freshman southpaw Gavin Knust, who allowed an RBI double to Eagles starter Walker Paris, extending the Eagles advantage to 5-2. After that, Knust allowed only one hit and struck out six over five dominant innings. The Grenadiers rewarded Knust’s efforts as senior third baseman Jake Scott knocked a one-out double down the leftfield line. Sophomore outfielder John Ullom followed with an RBI triple to right-center before coming home on an RBI single from senior second baseman Clay Woeste, shrinking the deficit to 5-4.
“We scored first, but Asbury flurried for five runs, got to Bube right away,” Reel said. “Gavin came in and pretty much stopped their offense long enough so we could chip away at them.”
Eagles reliever Jackson Cole shut down the Grenadier offense in the seventh and eighth. As they did in two of three games the two teams played during the regular season; the Grenadiers had a rally in their bones in the bottom of the ninth as sophomore Daunte DeCello led off with a single. After moving to second, DeCello watched sophomore first baseman Drew Hensley ground out to third, leaving the Grenadiers one out away from elimination.
That left the game in the hands of junior catcher Brody Tanksley, who hit a walk-off single against the Eagles on March 26. Down to his last two strikes, Tanksley once again came through by lacing a single to left field. The Grenadier dugout erupted as DeCello made a mad dash to the plate, sliding across home plate to score the tying run, allowing free baseball to be played to conclude the night.
“It was do-or-die so I was just looking for something over the plate that I could get Daunte in from second,” Tanksley said. “[Asbury] walked me once earlier in the season so I was surprised they didn’t do it then. I guess they didn’t learn their lesson and I had to remind them.”
Empowered by Tansley’s clutch single, the Grenadiers knew that their third comeback in four games against the Eagles this year was around the corner. After senior lefty Trevor Reynolds allowed only two hits over three shutout frames, the Grenadiers loaded the bases in the bottom of the 11th, bringing senior outfielder Marco Romero to the plate.
The situation was similar to a contest against the Eagles on March 27, when Romero came through with a walk-off single with runners on first and second with one out. Now, he came to the plate with bases loaded and nobody out. After taking the first pitch he saw from Jacob Cervantes, Romero swung at a 1-0 pitch towards first base. The ball initially looked destined to reach the glove of Eagles first baseman CJ Compton, with a throw to home plate for a potential game-saving force-out on his mind. Instead, the ball bounced over the head of Compton, allowing Woeste to trot home and seal Romero’s second consecutive walk-off against the Eagles this year and a 6-5 Grenadier victory in 11 innings.
“They walked Brody, so I was like ‘Okay, you want to face me,'” Romero said. “I needed to make them respect my name, but at the same time, it was just one more at-bat.”
With the 6-5 extra-innings victory under their belts, the Grenadiers returned to their hotel for a well-deserved rest and a rainy Mother’s Day off to recuperate after a long day of tense baseball. The rest allowed the Grenadiers to refocus before returning to VA Memorial Stadium on Monday, May 10, where they once again faced Point Park.
As the Pioneers were undefeated in tournament play coming into the matchup, the Grenadiers needed two victories to take home the tournament title. In such a crucial first game, lefty ace Hunter Kloke stepped onto the mind despite working on only three days’ rest. The senior southpaw got run support early as the Grenadiers starting when Scott brought home sophomore outfielder Derek Wagner on an RBI fielder’s choice. DeCello followed with an RBI single to bring home sophomore DH Ben Berenda to give the Grenadiers an early 2-0 lead.
Kloke allowed only two hits through the first four innings, but his command began to falter in the fifth as a cut fastball broke too far inside to plunk Luis Mujica. After a single by Luis Hernandez, a two-seam fastball broke too far inside to catch the foot of Danilo Leon. The second hit-by-pitch of the inning loaded the bases with nobody out, giving the Pioneers their biggest scoring opportunity of the ballgame.
Regardless of how desperate the situation appeared, Kloke dug deep and persevered, forcing Dylan Winseck to fly out to leftfield and striking out Jouseph Renovales. With two outs, Ed Pfluger fell behind Kloke 1-2 before taking the next two pitches for balls, running the count full at 3-2. On the seventh pitch of the at-bat, Kloke prevailed as he forced Pfluger to pop out to second base, allowing the lefty to tightrope out of danger unscathed.
“I just knew I had to bear down and start making pitches, ” Kloke said. “I knew I couldn’t get sloppy with all the guys on base because it was still a tight game.”
The Pioneers finally broke into the scoreboard in the seventh when Renovales brought Leon home on a two-out RBI double, shrinking the deficit to 2-1, yet it was all the Pioneers could muster against freshman right-hander Connor Fries. In the bottom half, Woeste led off by reaching first after being plunked by Pioneers’ reliever Ryan Huber before eventually reaching third with two-outs.
After reaching on a fielder’s choice, Romero successfully drew the attention of the Pioneer defense between first and second. Despite being caught in the pickle, Romero avoided the tag long enough to allow Woeste to trot home safely, giving the Grenadiers a more comfortable 3-1 advantage.
After two strong innings from Fries, Reel turned to senior right-hander Jacob Frankel in the eighth, who allowed only one hit and struck three as he recorded the final six outs for his fourth save. Kloke earned the victory after tossing five shutout frames, allowing only three hits and striking out three.
“Kloke did a great job on short rest giving us a great start and the bullpen was electric,” Reel said. “Offensively, we did not strike out one time. We’ve been practicing trading an out for a run all year and haven’t been consistently successful. We ran the play with Marco and Woeste was able to score before Marco was tagged out, which gave us a two-run lead which was all we needed.”
Needing just one more win, the Grenadiers now turned to freshman right-hander Cade Reynolds, who now had a chance at redemption. Reynolds started strong with three shutout innings after managing only one inning against the Pioneers in the winner’s bracket championship. The Grenadiers rewarded Reynolds’ improved performance early by scoring three runs through the first three frames.
The Pioneers weren’t finished as they stormed a rally against Reynolds in the bottom of the fourth. After a one-out single by Mujica and Emille Morillo reaching on a misplayed grounder by Scott, Hernandez lined a pitch into the rightfield corner to bring home a pair, cutting the deficit to 3-2.
Unlike his first start of the tournament, Reynolds recovered with another two shutout frames, soon leaving the game with six innings of two-run ball. The Grenadiers notched another run in the fifth courtesy of a Wagner RBI double but found their bats growing cold as they faced Pioneers reliever Ruben Ramirez. The RSC Pitcher of the Year allowed only two hits through three dominant frames, keeping the Pioneers’ comeback hopes alive.
Despite allowing just five earned runs all year long, the Grenadiers rallied against Ramirez in the top of the ninth, utilizing both clutch hitting and timely Pioneer miscues to tag four insurance runs. With an 8-2 lead, Bube came on to close out the contest, allowing a leadoff walk before striking out Leon and forcing Michali Brito to fly out to rightfield. As Renovales flew out to center, Bube and Tanksley embraced upon the final out being recorded, the first base dugout emptied with gloves, water, and celebratory screams filling the air. The challenges that the Grenadiers faced all season, from a slow start to injuries, culminated in their first RSC Tournament Title since 2011.
“It was very relieving [because] this team has worked through adversity all year,” Bube said. “It was just nice to see it all come together in the end for us.”
A Daunting Opening Round
After surviving three-straight elimination games, the Grenadiers returned to New Albany having swept both the RSC Regular-Season and Tournament titles, which also last occurred in 2011. The Grenadiers also took home a slew of awards, including Monahan and Cade Reynolds being named RSC Player and Newcomer of the year, respectively. Monahan led the way for nine all-conference selections for the Grenadiers, including five making the All-RSC First Team. They also had four players named the best defenders in the conference at their respective positions on the RSC Gold Glove Team. Rounding out the awards was Reel, whose leadership throughout the season’s ups and downs won him his seventh conference Coach of the Year award before the start of the tournament.
While the treasure trove of awards and trophies brought personal gratification to the Grenadiers, their odyssey has only begun. Just days following the RSC Tournament, the #15 Grenadiers began their march to Kingsport, Tenn., for their fifth-straight NAIA Opening Round appearance, which is set to begin on Monday, May 17. After the tournament opener between fourth-seeded Northwestern Ohio and fifth-seeded Mount Vernon Nazarene (OH), the second-seeded Grenadiers will begin their road to the NAIA World Series against third-seeded Warner University (FL).
While the Grenadiers appear to be on, at worst, equal ground with the aforementioned three opponents, it’s the regional host, top-seeded and top-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan, who will prove a daunting task for all. The Grenadiers confronted the Bulldogs in Cartersville, GA., earlier this season, nearly coming back in the series opener 10-9 before being bludgeoned in the final two games of the series by a combined score of 28-2.
Despite the rough showing, Reel is confident that his Grenadiers are ready for anyone this time around, to the point where it doesn’t matter who they face inside Hunter Wright Stadium.
“It doesn’t matter where we go, no matter where they send us, we’re three wins away from Idaho,” Reel said. “27 innings of baseball is what separates us from a goal that has never been accomplished in this program. When you take 198 baseball teams and condense them down to 45, they’re all going to be good.”
The Grenadiers and Royals are scheduled to square off at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, May 17, following the opening contest between Northwestern Ohio and Mount Vernon Nazarene. The time for the second game may change depending on when the first contest concludes.