Baseball advances to final five in NAIA World Series before falling to Faulkner

In their first-ever trip to Lewiston for the Avista NAIA World Series, #15 Grenadiers make it to final five before falling to #11 Faulkner 14-10 to conclude historic campaign


Joe Glover

Members of the IU Southeast Baseball team embrace in hugs following their season-ending loss to #11 Faulkner in the NAIA World Series. The #15 Grenadiers finished the 2021 campaign at 50-16 and went 2-2 in their first ever trip to the World Series.

Brandon Miniard, Sports Editor

43 Years in the Making

The Avista NAIA World Series felt like a fairy tale for the IU Southeast Baseball program since it began in 1979. Starting when current skipper Ben Reel became head coach in 2009, the Grenadiers developed into one of the better programs in NAIA, dominating the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and River States Conference with a 234-51 record

Sophomore shortstop Daunte DeCello walks towards the batting cage for the Grenadiers’ first batting practice at Harris Field in Lewiston, ID. before the Avista NAIA World Series. (Joe Glover)

Despite their conference dominance, which included seven regular-season titles, as well as multiple appearances in the NAIA Opening Round, the Grenadiers continually found themselves falling short of making the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, ID. continued to evade their reach. After searching for 43 seasons, the #15 Grenadiers finally speared their white whale on May 19 when they outslugged the defending national champion and top-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan 16-10 in the Opening Round final in Kingsport, TN.

With their ticket to Lewiston punched, the Grenadiers seemed primed to take their program to the next level of prominence. Less than 48 hours before departing on their arduous journey, however, they were dealt a heavy blow when senior lefty Hunter Kloke was barred from traveling with the team after a COVID-19 case returned positive. Despite not feeling symptoms and a subsequent test returning negative, Kloke’s collegiate career suddenly halted. The Grenadiers’ late-season personnel woes only grew with the news of Kloke, who joined River State Conference Player of the Year Matt Monahan in being forced to cheer from the sidelines. Monahan was forced to sit out starting with the final days of the regular season due to medical reasons.

Without their ace in tow, the Grenadiers nevertheless trekked to the Gem State with their eye on a national title. Even with a tough tournament field on the horizon, the Grenadiers did not let that stop them from using the days leading up to the program’s World Series debut to get acclimated to the new land they found themselves in. Upon entering the gates of Harris Field for the first time, many Grenadiers felt as if they set foot in a mythical, long-forgotten land. Despite the majesty that surrounds the venue in late May into early June, the Grenadiers remained focused on the task at hand.

“To walk through the gates at Harris Field in your uniform is a career goal for both a player and coach,” Reel said. “I don’t think it was necessarily daunting or anything, I think everybody was just excited. In the essence of all this, it’s just a baseball tournament. It’s a really important one, but it’s really just a baseball tournament that we’ve all played or coached in for our whole careers.”


After taking in the sights of Lewiston, the Grenadiers knew they still had work to do. On Friday, May 28, their first contest was made even more special as they confronted a fellow World Series first-timer in Concordia University (NE). The #19 Bulldogs had to survive deficits in three-straight elimination games in the NAIA Opening Round to make their first-ever trip to Lewiston. While the Grenadiers expected to see Jake Fosgett take the ball for the Bulldogs, they instead faced Nick Little, who came into the contest sporting a 4.93 ERA.

Little dueled with freshman right-hander Cade Reynolds to start the game, yet both starters only last until an out into the third inning before being hooked. The Bulldogs made the early hook, bringing in Fosgett and his sparkling 1.36 ERA. The Grenadiers countered with freshman southpaw Gavin Knust, who gave the Grenadiers four shutout innings. Fosgett wasn’t as fortunate as he allowed consecutive singles to junior catcher Brody Tanksley and senior outfielder Marco Romero to start the fourth inning. With one out, sophomore outfielder John Ullom struck with a groundout to third, allowing freshman courtesy runner Brandon Boxer to score the Grenadiers’ first-ever World Series run.

Freshman left-hander Gavin Knust rears back to fire a fastball against Concordia University (NE.) in the Avista NAIA World Series on May 28. Knust tossed four shutout innings in relief en route to a 4-2 victory over the Bulldogs to secure the Grenadiers’ first-ever World Series win. (Joe Glover)

The Bulldogs faltered the next inning when junior second baseman Clay Woeste came home when Bulldogs’ shortstop Jose Cevallos misplayed a groundball hit by sophomore first baseman Drew Hensley. Not comfortable with a 2-0 lead, Hensley led off the seventh by working a walk. After Tanksley struck out, Romero came to the plate before crushing a 2-0 pitch from Adrian Cotton over the centerfield fence for a two-run homer.

That two-run shot proved to be the difference-maker as the Bulldogs led off the eighth with a pair of singles of freshman righty Conner Fries. After removing Fries for senior right-hander Jacob Frankel, Ben Berg laced a one-out single back up the middle to bring both runners home, cutting the deficit to 4-2. Frankel recovered to record the final five outs to record his fifth save of the year and give the Grenadiers their first-ever World Series victory 4-2.

“I think we did an excellent job in that first game, everything was done how it was supposed to be,” Romero said. “After that game, I felt that we had a very good chance to go deep into the World Series.”

With a 1-0 record to begin World Series play, the Grenadiers’ next task came against a familiar foe in #4 Central Methodist. The two teams previously played each other in Sterlington, LA., as part of the Cajun Collision on Feb. 21, with the Eagles flying away with a 10-3 victory.

Looking for payback this time around, Reel handed the ball to senior southpaw Trevor Reynolds. Initially, the lefty pitched well, shutting out the power Eagles’ offense through the first three frames while the Grenadiers plated a pair of runs in the top of the fourth. That wouldn’t last with one out into the bottom half as the Eagles knocked five consecutive hits to jump out to a 4-2 lead. Looking for more, Kenny Otero knocked Reynolds out of the game after launching an 0-1 pitch over the left-field fence for a two-run homer.

“The first three innings I was working down and away, which was working,” Reynolds said. “The fourth inning came around and [Central Methodist] caught on to what we were doing and they started diving out to get to the away pitch.”

Despite removing Reynolds in favor of Jared Jones, the senior right-hander could only watch as both Logan Haring and Sergio Macias took him deep over the centerfield wall with back-to-back solo shots, giving the Eagles three consecutive longballs and an 8-2 edge.

While the Grenadiers scratched a run in the sixth and another pair in the ninth, they were sandwiched between a three-run seventh inning by the Eagles to put the game out of reach 11-5. Eagles’ ace Nick Merkel earned the win, extending his flawless record to 13-0 after allowing three runs, only one of which was earned, across six strong innings. While the Grenadiers mustered 10 of their 16 hits off Merkel, their normally potent offense left 10 runners stranded on the basepaths.

“I was more concerned about the runs we gave up late in the game,” Reel said. “I was disappointed because we gave up some big hits early and then [Central Methodist] flurried. But those late runs we gave up were just unacceptable.”

Junior catcher Brody Tanksley (right) finishes a mound meeting with senior left-hander Trevor Reynolds during the Grenadiers’ World Series contest against #4 Central Methodist on May 29. Reynolds was sharp for the first three innings before the Eagles broke through with eight runs in fourth, six of which were allowed by the lefty. (Joe Glover)

One Game Season

With the loss to the Eagles, the Grenadiers suddenly found themselves on the verge of elimination. Such a scenario was old hat for the Grenadiers, having survived countless setbacks and hardships throughout the season yet always found a way to bounce back. Before they could summon any rally magic, the Grenadiers and all remaining teams benefited from having a day off on Sunday, May 30. While the break could have been a chance to rest, the Grenadiers instead used it to iron out wrinkles in their gameplan and focus.

“At first, we started out wanting to rest and regroup, then on Sunday, we decided we were going to have a pretty intense practice,” Reel said. “On Sunday night, [the coaches] got after the players in the team meeting and on the practice field. We went back to some of our old practices that we had trying to lock them in and challenge them. What are they afraid of?”

Once the off-day drew to a close, the Grenadiers returned to Harris Field on Memorial Day to confront #17 Keiser University. Facing the Seahawks for the first time since the 2017 NAIA Opening Round, Reel hoped to extend the Grenadiers’ season by giving the ball to Drew Hensley. The sophomore righty stumbled slightly in the bottom of the first after allowing a leadoff double to Ben McConnell, who later came around to score on a one-out RBI single by Mason Dinesen.

The Grenadier bats initially struggled against Seahawks’ starter Deykel Reyes despite getting runners on in each of the first four innings. Desiring to protect a slim 1-0 edge, Reyes persevered to leave six Grenadier baserunners stranded.

Despite being shutout through the first four frames, the Grenadiers broke through in the top of the fifth when Tanksley brought Woeste home on an RBI groundout after the latter knocked a leadoff double. That tying run served as a prelude for the top of the sixth when Woeste and sophomore shortstop Daunte DeCello knocked consecutive two-out, two-run doubles, jumping out to a 5-1 advantage.

After scoring a run in the bottom half, the Seahawks showed their resolve as they exchanged a three-spot with the Grenadiers in the seventh. After the Grenadiers plated freshman pinch-runner Andronico Recasas on a balk in the top of the ninth, the Seahawks chipped the deficit to 9-7 in the bottom half on a Tim Bouchard one-out two-run home run off junior right-hander Brenden Bube. Frankel trotted to the mound shortly after, recording the final two outs to notch his sixth save while keeping the Grenadiers’ season alive for at least one more day.

“Pitching has been our Achilles heel… We made a lot of mistakes deep in the count in big situations, and you saw it rear its head in that game as well,” Reel said. “We got a big lead and have guys walking people. That stuff in postseason play is just not a good sign. The win felt good but the message after the game was still ‘you guys still have not played your best game out here yet.’ We still have not played our best baseball.”

Fighting Until the End

To sleep while still on the cusp of elimination can be difficult, yet the Grenadiers could do so after defeating Keiser. When they rose with the next day’s sun, their season reached the month of June for the first time in program history.

Senior closer Jacob Frankel flips the ball to first base to finish off a 9-7 victory over #17 Keiser University during the Avista NAIA World Series on May 31. (Joe Glover)

After tournament host Lewis-Clark State eliminated top-seeded Southeastern, the Grenadiers became one of only five teams remaining in NAIA. Looking for a spot in the final four, the Grenadiers’ next obstacle came in the form of #11 Faulkner, who looked to keep their season alive after losing a tight 4-3 contest against Central Methodist.

With their season on the line, Reel gave the ball to Cade Reynolds to try and hold the Eagles’ offense at bay. Such a task proved unattainable for Reynolds, as the powerful Eagles’ offense surrendered only one out en route to tagging the freshman righty with four first-inning runs.

Woeste immediately got one of those runs back in the bottom half with a leadoff homer, the first of two runs the Grenadiers scored in the frame. Both sides then exchanged a pair of runs in the second before John Michael Mathews took Conner Fries deep, giving the Eagles their third two-run shot of the contest. Despite getting a run back in the bottom half, the Grenadiers had some work to do to overcome an 8-5 deficit.

That work began in the bottom of the fifth when senior third baseman Jake Scott reached base after striking out on a wild pitch and junior utilityman Tyler Mills on an Alex Arauz fielding error. With the door opened slightly, Woeste’s RBI groundout and DeCello’s RBI single brought the Grenadiers within one run, 8-7.

Sophomore outfielder Derek Wagner kept the rally going in the bottom of the sixth with a leadoff double. A one-out walk by sophomore catcher Ben Berenda put Wagner in scoring position for Scott as he stepped in against one of the nation’s top pitchers in Antonio Frias. Scott overcame the challenge of Frias as he knocked the ball back up the middle for a one-out single. The dugout erupted as Wagner scored the tying run, adding to the Grenadiers’ long list of comebacks from significant deficits.

“I was just trying to keep it simple and use the middle of the field because Frias was a good pitcher,” Scott said. “If you try to do too much he’s gonna beat you, so I just tried to keep things simple and play the game.”

Heading to the seventh, the Grenadiers appeared revitalized as they returned to defense. That energy was quickly drained as the Eagles fired back with a five-run inning, highlighted by Sam Anthony hitting his second home run of the contest off Frankel. As the three-run shot flew over the centerfield fence, the Grenadiers felt as if they were knocked down a mountain they labored to climb.

While plating a pair of runs on a Scott sacrifice fly and an RBI double by Hensley in the eighth, the Grenadiers’ comeback magic ran out as the Eagles took the contest 14-10. With the loss, the Grenadiers watched their 2021 season come to a biting end while the Eagles flew into the final four.

Despite the heartbreak that comes with falling short of their ultimate goal, the Grenadiers knew they had nothing to be ashamed of with their 2021 season, given all they had to go through to get to Lewiston. Regardless of who they lost, the Grenadiers spent the year turning adversity into nothing more than a running gag they overcame repeatedly.

“Obviously, we wanted to win and it was frustrating, but it didn’t even come close to what it felt like losing Santrel [Farmer], watching Daunte get his knee taken out, losing [Monahan], watching [Kloke] not get to go to the World Series because of COVID,” Woeste said. “Those are just the major things, we dealt with so much more that most people don’t even know about. So when it came to adversity on the field, we didn’t even care, we almost laughed at it. We just kept going.”

Senior third baseman fires a running throw to first base during the Grenadiers’ 14-10 loss to #11 Faulkner on June 1. Scott went 2-for-4 with two RBI in his final collegiate contest, including a sixth-inning RBI single to tie the game at eight. (Joe Glover)

A Season for the Ages (For real this time)

After the 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19, the Grenadiers’ 18-1 record indicated that 2020 was possibly a historic season in the making. Despite a 5-10 start to the 2021 campaign, the Grenadiers ensured that said historic season would come to pass, albeit a year later than anticipated.

Since being swept in four games by Huntington to end the month of February, the Grenadiers went 45-6 over their final 51 games. Along with dominating the RSC with a 26-1 record, the Grenadiers swept the conference regular-season title before capturing their first RSC Tournament title since 2011. They followed that performance by sweeping the NAIA Opening Round, coming back from a 6-0 first-inning deficit to defeat Warner before their two victories over top-ranked Tennessee Wesleyan to claim their first-ever trip to Lewiston.

World Series victories over Concordia and Keiser helped the Grenadiers set a new program-best with 50 victories, the first instance in program history. The Grenadier offense was especially historic as they set program records in nearly every offensive category, including hitting 64 home runs, notching 503 RBI, and stealing 155 bases, among other milestones. Their historic postseason run rewarded them by finishing the year ranked sixth in the final NAIA Top 25 poll, their highest ranking in program history.

With the season having drawn to a close, the Grenadiers will look to use 2021 as a foundation for the years to come. Such an endeavor will have to come without the services of eight seniors, most of whom played their final baseball game at the pinnacle of NAIA Baseball. Those seniors include the absent Hunter Kloke and Matt Monahan, alongside pitchers Trevor Reynolds, Jacob Frankel, Jared Jones, and Payton Bledsoe, infielder Jake Scott, and outfielder Marco Romero.

“You lose Scott and Monahan, two tremendous assets to this team, you lose Trevor Reynolds, Jacob Frankel, Jared Jones, and so on, all really good players, but nobody is irreplaceable,” Reel said. “We will fill the holes because all championship programs are built on competition and the loyalty of our players and coaches to our program.”

Reel will have the benefit of returning a majority of his main core, led by the likes of Woeste, who was elected to the World Series All-Tournament team, and Tanksley, an NAIA All-American Honorable Mention. As the Grenadiers look toward 2022, the Grenadiers also anticipate the arrival of a strong recruiting class that will once again consist of a mixture of transfers and incoming freshmen. However, nothing is finalized as of yet.

The IU Southeast Baseball team breaks team huddle one last time to officially conclude their historic 2021 season after losing to #11 Faulkner 14-10 in the Avista NAIA World Series. (Joe Glover)

The recruiting emphasis may well lean towards pitching as the Grenadiers finished 2021 with a 5.00 staff ERA. The graduation of four pitchers, including a potential MLB draft pick in Kloke, makes the ever-urgent need for quality arms even more crucial. If the likes of true freshmen Cade Reynolds and Gavin Knust are any indication, the Grenadiers’ pitching staff may be on their way to reaching their full potential.

Should they even come close to that reality, the Grenadiers may find themselves back in Lewiston sooner than most would expect. That goal is only a part of what Reel wants to see his program achieve soon.

“I think we’re all really motivated for next year, we return pretty much everybody and we’re gonna sign an incoming class that’s really good,” Reel said. “Our goal next year is to host regional. I want to host an Opening Round.”