Baseball shocks #1 Tennessee Wesleyan in back-to-back contests, marches to Lewiston for first time

After overcoming 6-0 first-inning hole against Warner, #15 Grenadiers defeat defending champs on back-to-back days to earn first-ever NAIA World Series berth


Joe Glover

IU Southeast Baseball skipper Ben Reel looks up at the pennants showing every team that has won the NAIA World Series since it began in 1957. Reel hopes that his #15 Grenadiers can add their name to that list as they will participate in the event in Lewiston, ID., for the first time in school history.

Brandon Miniard, Sports Editor

After clinching the River States Conference Regular-Season title on April 23, the IU Southeast Baseball team was bound to return to the NAIA Opening Round for the fifth consecutive season. Before they could do so, they needed to survive three consecutive elimination games late in the RSC Tournament against fellow conference superpowers Asbury and Point Park to take home their first tournament title since 2011.

While flying high as they returned from Chillicothe, OH., the #15 Grenadiers knew that the easy part was over. After spending a few days back in New Albany to recuperate, the Grenadiers’ next stop was Hunter Wright Stadium in Kingsport, TN., entering as the second seed in a five-team regional field. While the three teams seeded lower than the Grenadiers were, at best, on equal ground, it was the regional host that would prove a daunting task.

That host is top-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan, whom the Grenadiers played in their second series of the season. While the Grenadiers nearly erased a 6-0 first-inning deficit in the series opener, they eventually dropped it 10-9. The Bulldogs offense proceeded to bludgeon the Grenadiers in the final two games, outscoring the Grenadiers 28-2 en route to a series sweep.

With a much healthier roster this time around minus RSC Player of the Year Matt Monahan, the Grenadiers knew that a confrontation with the defending NAIA World Series champions was not a matter of “if,” but a matter of “when.”

“To be honest, it was something we’ve been talking about all year, and I told [Bulldogs’ head coach] Billy [Berry] we wanted to play Tennessee Wesleyan,” head coach Ben Reel said of the potential matchup. “I told him ‘this is the story we’ve been talking about all year, we had to play you guys to go to Lewiston,’ and it kind of lined up. Billy looked at me and said ‘well, let’s see how the story ends.”

Royal Comeback

Before even beginning to think about facing the top-ranked Bulldogs, the Grenadiers first had to go through the regional’s third seed in Warner University (FL). Such an endeavor seemed not to be after freshman starter Lane Oesterling struggled against the Royals, allowing six earned runs to score while recording just a single out. Reel soon took the ball from his struggling starter and handed it to another freshman right-hander in Conner Fries, who allowed the final two runs of Oesterling’s responsibility to score before ending the early assault.

Junior catcher Brody Tanksley rounds second base after launching a towering home run against Georgetown College on April 6. Tanksley had a strong Opening Round performance, going 5-for-14 with a pair of home runs, including a walk-off shot against Warner University to open tournament play. (Brandon Miniard)

“My initial goal was to get somebody hot so we could bring them in and stop the early rally, stop the momentum of Warner,” Reel said. “Then we started doing what we’ve done all year, we’re just gonna grind it out, just start to chip away.”

It didn’t take long for the Grenadiers to chip away at the Royals’ 6-0, their initial goal being to cut the deficit in half. After loading the bases with nobody out, sophomore outfielder John Ullom and junior catcher Brody Tanksley came through with consecutive sacrifice flies, followed by an RBI single from sophomore outfielder Derek Wagner.

Despite the strong pitching of Fries, who went five scoreless after the first, and a strong 1.2 frames from freshman lefty Gavin Knust, the Royals added a pair of insurance runs in the sixth and seventh. The extended lead meant little to the Grenadiers as they struck for three more runs in the bottom of the seventh courtesy of an RBI from sophomore shortstop Daunte DeCello and RBI doubles from Wagner and junior second baseman Clay Woeste to cut the deficit to 8-6.

The Royals managed another run in the top of the ninth, but it only fueled the Grenadiers’ determination evermore in the bottom half. DeCello wasted little time leading off with a single before racing to third on a Woeste double. The baton then fell into the hands of Ullom, who promptly used it to wack a ball into right-field to bring both runners home, cutting the Royals’ edge to 9-8.

With nobody out and the tying run at the plate, Tanksley walked to the plate with the power to tie the game with a single swing. On a 2-2 count, the swing he took instead caused the ball to fly over the left-field fence, completing the improbable comeback 10-9.

“When I hit the walk-off I wasn’t thinking about trying to end the game I just wanted to keep the line moving for someone behind me to be the hero,” Tanksley said. “I was seeing a lot of breaking balls the entire game and I knew I was going to see multiple that at-bat. I got to two strikes and knew it was coming.”

The Long-Awaited Duel

Avoiding the loser’s bracket of the double-elimination tournament, the Grenadiers returned the following day to one of the most highly anticipated matchups across all nine Opening Rounds against top-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan. Reel handed the ball to lefty ace Hunter Kloke for arguably the biggest game of his collegiate career with a trip to the regional title game on the line. Opposing the potential professional prospect was Bulldogs ace Kobe Foster, who entered the contest with a perfect 12-0 record and a 1.80 ERA.

Despite Foster’s dominance throughout the year, the Grenadiers tagged the junior lefty in the first with consecutive one-out doubles from sophomore first baseman Drew Hensley and Tanksley. The 1-0 lead only lasted until the third when Bryce Giles stepped after Anthony Hickman reached on a one-out single, crushing a 1-1 pitch over the left-field fence for his 12th home run of the year.

The Bulldogs’ 2-1 advantage meant little to Tanksley as he stepped to the plate with one out in the third. Not satisfied with just one homer in the tournament so far, Tanksley took the first pitch he saw out of the yard for his 18th dinger of the year. Like their earlier lead, the tie did not fare long against the Bulldogs’ star freshman shortstop Gary Mattis, leading off the sixth with his 24th longball of the year to give the Bulldogs a 3-2 edge.

“Home runs are going to happen against power guys at some point. That’s why it’s important to keep the bases as empty as possible,” Kloke said. “An offense can recover from a solo homer or a two-run shot. It’s the three-run and grand slam long balls that hurt.”

Mattis’ seventh home run against Grenadier pitching this year appeared to put the Bulldogs in cruise control through the seventh. With two outs in the frame, Wagner grounded a ball to third, which had the look of an inning-ending groundout to give Foster seven innings of two-run ball. Instead, Wagner made it to first base safely after a throw by Jhosmel Rodriquez went awry.

With the door of opportunity once again cracked, Ullom kicked it open as he blasted a ball into right-centerfield, allowing Wagner to speed home and tie the game on an RBI triple. The tying knock was a boon for senior lefty Trevor Reynolds as he limited the powerful Bulldog offense to a single hit over three shutout innings.

Junior outfielder Marco Romero (#15) celebrates with teammates after hitting a solo home run in the nightcap of a doubleheader against Oakland City on April 3. Romero had a solid Opening Round showing, going 4-for-11 with four RBI, one of which came on a walk-off solo home run to help the #15 Grenadiers defeat top-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan 4-3 in the first of two between the two programs in Kingsport, TN. (Brandon Miniard)

Heading to the bottom of the ninth in a tie ballgame, the Grenadiers finally watched Foster depart after eight innings with 11 strikeouts. Matters didn’t get much easier as they faced another dominant pitcher in right-hander Irving Martin, who started the frame by striking out Tanksley. Coming to the plate with one out, senior outfielder Marco Romero stepped to the plate with no desire to go to extra innings against the top team in the nation. On an 0-1 count, Romero crushed a pitch deep to right, walking off the defending World Series champions with a solo home run to give the Grenadiers a 4-3 victory.

“I’m pretty sure the pitcher and catcher got crossed up because I saw on the video later that the catcher set up outside,” Romero said. “I saw an inside pitch, an inside fastball, and I crushed it.”

With the victory, the Grenadiers ended their second day of tournament play in the driver’s seat. Regardless of who they would face in the Opening Round title game, the Grenadiers needed just one more victory to advance to Lewiston while their opponent needed to pull off two victories.

Final Slugfest

While stunned by Romero’s walk-off, the Bulldogs refused to go down quietly against Mount Vernon Nazarene in the loser’s bracket final. With a three-run ninth inning to claim a 5-3 victory, the Bulldogs suddenly found themselves in the unfamiliar role of underdog as they once again squared off against the Grenadiers.

“The message we sent to our guys before the first game was if you’re gonna fight the champ, if you’re gonna fight Mike Tyson or whoever, you gotta knock them out,” Reel said. “You’re not gonna be able to knock them down, if they can stand back up, they’re gonna stand back up. They’re not gonna get counted out in the corner.”

While the first bout was a fairly low-scoring affair, this heavyweight fight saw both combatants traded blows early and often. Bulldogs starter Chris Koeiman only lasted two innings despite giving up three runs, though freshman right-hander and RSC Newcomer of the Year Cade Reynolds hardly faired better. After giving up a run in the second and allowing a pair of runners to reach in the third, he could only watch as Mattis crushed a 2-0 pitch beyond the left-field fence to give the Bulldogs. A misplayed grounder by Woeste allowed another run to score before Reynolds got out of the frame, the Bulldogs boasting a 6-3 edge.

A four-run deficit felt as large as a one-run lead as the Grenadiers loaded the bases with one out in the fifth. DeCello and Woeste followed with consecutive two-run singles to help the Grenadiers pull ahead. The Bulldogs could not escape the inning before surrendering further damage in RBI singles from Hensley and Romero, giving the Grenadiers a 9-5 advantage.

Despite scoring another run in the seventh to extend their edge to 10-5, the Bulldogs rallied for three runs in the bottom half against Knust. Despite shutting down the Bulldog offense for three innings and got the first two outs of the frame, Jermayne Ward delivered a pinch-hit RBI single to bring home Zach Hogueisson. Conner Fries came on to limit the damage but couldn’t do so before Bailey Russell shot a ball down the left-field line for a two-run double, cutting the deficit to 10-8.

With their precious lead growing thinner, the Grenadiers started the eighth with DeCello hitting a one-out double, followed by Woeste being plunked by Bulldogs reliever Michael Taylor. After junior utilityman Tyler Mills walked to load the bases, Tanksley grounded a ball to third base. Trying to get the force out at home, Rodriquez once again misfired, watching the ball dart underneath catcher Russell and roll to the backstop. Woeste and DeCello score on the miscue, but it was only the beginning of another offensive onslaught. The assault culminated with sophomore catcher Ben Berenda, who hit a bases-loaded line drive to first. Instead of an inning-ending lineout, the ball deflected off Alex Flock’s glove and rolled to the right-field corner for a bases-clearing double, pushing the Grenadier lead to 16-8.

“I don’t think there was ever a moment you thought Tennessee Wesleyan wasn’t going to comeback,” Reel said. “You thought the game was over after the third strike was caught and you still thought ‘did they have another at-bat left?’ I don’t know how many times we knocked them down and they just kept getting back up.”

Senior lefty Hunter Kloke slides forward to deliver a fastball against Rio Grande on March 6. Kloke, a professional prospect, turned in a solid outing against top-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan in the NAIA Opening Round, allowing three earned runs over six innings, striking out seven to help the Grenadiers advance to the Opening Round title game. (Brandon Miniard)

Despite allowing a pair of runs in the bottom half, senior right-hander Jacob Frankel entered the bottom of the ninth with a fairly comfortable 16-10 edge. Against the top team in the nation, the Louisville native started the frame by striking out Russell and forcing Hickman to pop out behind home plate, putting the Grenadiers just one defensive outs away from history.

Giles reached base on a two-out walk, but it only prolonged the inevitable. With a swinging strikeout of Ford, the Grenadiers’ long wait came to an end as they punched their ticket to Lewiston, ID., for the program’s first-ever NAIA World Series.

“Throwing the final strike was one of the best feelings,” Frankel said. “In the blink of an eye, you remember everything that got you to that point and all the time spent with the team. We had been through a lot up to that point which made it feel even better.”

Lewiston Bound

The Grenadiers’ historic run culminated what had been a journey that has varied in length depending on who you ask. For many players such as Romero, Scott, Woeste, and Tanksley among others, the historic occasion was at least two seasons in the making after the 2020 season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For Reel, this moment was over 15 years in the making, dating back to his time as the Grenadiers’ starting catcher. For him, reaching Lewiston is similar to someone finding a land thought to be only a myth.

“Lewiston is a very Narnia-esque destination,” Reel said. “You know it’s a real town, you know it’s in Idaho, but none of us have ever been there. We’ve heard all these stories about it, I think everybody was picturing what it was gonna be like to walk through the gates at Harris Field in our uniforms.”

While knocking off the top team in the country and the defending World Series champions in back-to-back games alone is considered unprecedented, the amount of adversity the Grenadiers overcame throughout the year made such a victory even more special. In their first 15 games, the Grenadiers stumbled out to a 5-10 start. Their record since? 43-4.

Alongside the slow start, the Grenadiers have had to deal with injuries and absences to key contributors throughout the season. The biggest came just a week before the RSC Tournament when RSC Player of the Year Matt Monahan was forced to sit due to an undisclosed medical issue.

“Next man up,” Reel said. “It’s been that way all year, literally summed up as ‘hey bub, you’re up, let’s go, give me all you got.'” If that’s only an out, that’s fine. If it’s three outs, great. If it’s six outs, nine, 10, 12, 15, it doesn’t matter. Just give me what you got; just give me your best.”

While advancing to Lewiston alone could put the 2021 campaign as arguably the greatest season in program history, the work doesn’t end yet. Entering the ten-team double-elimination tournament as the seventh seed, the Grenadiers will face a fellow World Series first-timer in 10th-seeded Concordia University (NE). The #19 Bulldogs (42-10) fought their way to Harris Field after surviving deficits in three-straight elimination games, culminating with a 7-5 victory over host Bellevue.

The IU Southeast Baseball team poses with the Opening Round championship trophy and a large copy of the Kingsport bracket after defeating top-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan 16-10. The victory was the second straight against the defending national champions and secured the #15 Grenadiers’ first-ever trip to the Avista NAIA World Series. (IU Southeast Athletics)

A win by either side doesn’t make the road to the World Series title any easier as the winner will then confront the tournament’s second seed in #4 Central Methodist College (MO). The Grenadiers previously faced the Eagles in the Cajun Collision on Feb. 21, falling to the Eagles 10-3.

While they have overcome one challenge after another, the Grenadiers once again faced adversity in the form of another absence as Kloke was forced to stay back in New Albany due to a positive COVID-19 test. The positive came to light on Monday, May 24, less than 48 hours before the Grenadiers departed. Despite not feeling any symptoms and a subsequent test coming back negative, it was not enough to allow Kloke passage to Lewiston with the team, essentially ending his season, as well as his collegiate career.

“As far as the feeling I got when I heard I couldn’t go to Lewiston, it sucked. It was almost like ‘wow, this is how it ends?'” Kloke said. “Unfortunately, a negative test didn’t help the fact of me being able to go due to the rules stating nothing negates a positive PCR test pre-departure, not even another negative. At the end of the day, it is what it is. There’s nothing I can do about it. God is in control and he’s got something planned for me, just not this trip to the World Series.”

While Kloke’s absence will make for interesting questions on how the Grenadiers address their pitching rotation, such a situation is old hat at this point. After two statement victories over #1 Tennessee Wesleyan, Reel and his Grenadiers have complete confidence they can win it all regardless of opponent and regardless of who can or can’t play.

“We’re here to literally win the thing,” Reel said. “Whether we can or can’t, obviously, we’re gonna find out. Our mindset is to do whatever it takes to make it as far as we can.”

The matchup between the Grenadiers and Concordia is scheduled for Friday, May 28, in the third of four games to kick off the 64th annual Avista NAIA World Series. First pitch is scheduled for 3 p.m. Pacific time.