MOUNT CARMEL -- On Monday Wabash Valley College baseball defeated No. 10 ranked John A. Logan, completing a sweep of the Volunteers and clinching a third straight Great Rivers Athletic Conference.
That sweep secured an undefeated conference campaign (27-0) for the No. 1 ranked Warriors (49-1 overall), who currently ride a 47-game win streak, with their last loss coming three months ago.
In a sport as unforgiving as baseball can be, a win streak that's reached the height that of Wabash Valley's is incredible. Wabash Valley College head coach Rob Fournier gives his players their dues in that regard,
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praising their approach to the game and not allowing such an accolade to get in their heads.
"To say that we'd be in this situation, I'd never have thought that," Fournier spoke of the Warriors' regular season success. "At the same time, credit to these guys. They approach each game like it's a new game. That's one thing I'm really proud of. They don't make the moment too big, they're just having fun with it and understand that yesterday's and today's today."
Aside from the historic team accomplishments, some individuals have also had transcendent seasons, such as sophomore first baseman Cael Baker, who finished the regular season with the NJCAA Division I baseball Triple Crown, leading the nation in batting average (.527), RBIs (88) and home runs (22). Another standout, sophomore center fielder Noah Myers, who set a WVC record and leads the nation with 71 stolen bases, while hitting for a .394 clip and a .528 on base percentage to highlight the Warriors bats between the tandem at the top of the lineup.
As impressive as such accolades are, all will be essentially moot if the Warriors are unsuccessful in the postseason, which begins on Friday. It's practically a brand new season, set the 47-game streak and all the accolades aside. It comes down to who comes to play on a given night. Fournier knows this reality and has been preaching that motto to his team.
"We accomplished our goal, getting the No. 1 seed and winning the conference again which is hard to do," Fournier said. "Honestly the hardest thing to do is win a conference of 32 games, that shows you that you're the most consistent, best team overall. When you start the postseason it's a whole new season, you don't have to be the best team, it's the team who plays the best. Sometimes when you do that, it puts too much pressure on them, we just try to negate that and play."
As victors of the GRAC, WVC will host the Region 24 Tournament beginning on Friday (May 10), as aforementioned. They've won the tournament four times since 2010 and will face Frontier Community College (27-28) in the opener, a team they swept in their season series and notably defeated 23-5 in the first game of the series.
With a victory, the Warriors would earn a date with the victor of Kaskaskia (22-16) or Olney Central College (32-15). The Warriors swept the season series against both teams, but the Blue Knights pose an interesting challenge for the Warriors in a potential rematch. In two of their previous matchups Olney Central had the Warriors on the ropes, including a 9-0 deficit and a 1-0 deficit in the seventh inning, both times the Warriors came back and won in dramatic fashion. Still, the Blue Knights are a quality ballclub who could top the Warriors on a given night if they game is approached lightly.
"We're very aware that if we don't play solid baseball, it could be over in a day, that given day," Fournier spoke of his team's mindset heading into the Region 24 Tournament. "We're accountable for that, we understand that we have to be accounted for how we perform, how we play. That's the beautiful thing about tournament time, controlling the nerves, it's just another game."
Fournier feels their pitching staff -- highlighted by flamethrower freshman lefty Antoine Kelly Jr. (9-0, 1.46 ERA, 18.75 Ks per nine innings, 90 Ks) who's dazzled Major League scouts with his potential, freshman lefty Cameron Tullar (9-0, 1.44 ERA, 91 Ks), and sophomore right-hander Ryan O'Connell (9-1, 1.91 ERA, 66 IP) -- will be major keys for the Warriors if they're to be successful in the tournament and possibly beyond. By no means would it be a stretch to say the Warriors trio of arms could perhaps be the best rotation in all of JUCO.
"It's really cool that you have Ryan O'Connell, who's a right-handed pitcher that'll go 87-90 and throw three pitches but sinks it, has strong pitch ability and experience," Fournier spoke of his rotation. 'Then you go a guy like Cameron Tullar, that's a 87-90 lefty, throws every breaking ball you can imagine, a changeup. Then you go Antoine, that's 94-98, you have all kinds of different looks, then you have a great bullpen in CJ Weins that closes. It's a really deep staff. We're still competing everyday to see who our best 10 to 12 arms are. It's a very deep staff that's constantly competing and that's a good thing."
To get a better idea of who'll step up and how they respond under pressure outside of Weins, the Warriors used the last two weeks as auditions per say for their bullpen. As a result, Fournier got a better feel of which guys are capable of responding in jams and what they're capable of. He commented that they discovered a few guys who'll likely be called upon in relief frequently and cited freshman righty Connor Fenlong as a guy that was particularly impressive over that stretch.
Additionally, their infield play, with Baker, sophomore second baseman Brian Fuentes (.416 BA, 15 homers, 60 RBIs), freshman shortshop Savier Pinales (.371 BA, 42 RBIs, 38 SBs), freshman third baseman Freylin Minyety (.356 BA, 33 RBIs) along with their solid contributions from catcher Zade Richardson (.417 BA, six homers, 52 RBIs), has consistently helped carry the Warriors all year long and hopes they'll continue their strong contributions in the pressure packed moments of the elevated stage.
If they do indeed advance past Region 24 pool play, the Warriors would secure a date in the Northern District Tournament, where they'd likely face No. 12 ranked Iowa Western. The Reivers have won the NJCAA Division I Baseball World Series three times since 2010. They defeated the Warriors 6-1 last season in the Northern District Tournament and the Warriors will surely be seeking revenge in an eventual rematch.
With a hypothetical Northern District Tournament title under their belt, the Warriors would advance to the World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., which they last reached in the 2016-2017 season before falling in the quarterfinal to San Jacinto-North, the runner-up and subsequently in the elimination game against Chipola, the eventual champion of the tournament.
If they fall short of their goal, which would be the program's first championship in Grand Junction, Fournier is still tremendously proud of this group and all they've been able to accomplish. They're not only a talented group, but a group with incredible chemistry and unselfishness. If the Warriors are able to break through that barrier, this almost magical group seems to be the one destined to fit the mold.
"Just really proud of this bunch, obviously with what they've been able to do, but there's a lot more ahead of us," Fournier said. "Just to be around a bunch that's been so enjoyable to coach. These kids, they do the right things on and off the field, they do a great job in the classroom, it's a lot of fun to be around them and they like to learn. It's a lot of fun, it's been very enjoyable, no matter what happens this year, it's been one of the best groups that we've ever coached."
The first game on Friday will be WVC-Frontier, beginning at noon, followed by the Kaskaskia-Olney Central game at 3 p.m. The full schedule for the Region 24 Tournament this weekend can be found on Wabash Valley College baseball's twitter page (@WVCBASEBALL).