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Determined seniors lead program to unforgettable season

By Jake Knabel on May. 23, 2017 in Baseball

Head coach Ryan Dupic and his staff ran through a typical offseason routine of number crunching after the 2016 campaign resulted in a fourth-place conference finish. What did the exercise reveal? The Concordia baseball program was clearly on the rise and its predicted third-place finish in the 2017 GPAC preseason coaches’ poll seemed like a realistic expectation.

Said Dupic, “At the end of our analysis, we kept coming back to about third place, where everyone kept telling us.”

Third place sounded pretty good for a program that failed to even qualify for the conference tournament three years in a row from 2013 to 2015. But trying telling that to this senior class. Back on Feb. 7, senior catcher Ryan Fesmire said it without stuttering, “Honestly, I think if you ask anybody on the team – if we finish third in the GPAC this year, we would be disappointed. We honestly believe that we can go and win GPAC.”

Fesmire’s words became prophetic. Something special happened. It happened not just because the talent within the program had become significantly upgraded. It happened because a team of unified believers came together in the pursuit of a common goal. It happened because a courageous leader of a head coach refused to ever let his own personal illness become an excuse. It happened because a group of senior position players meshed with a strong stable of freshmen pitchers.

There were so many factors involved that paved the way for the sheer joy that surfaced on May 1. Needing one more victory to share the GPAC regular-season title with Concordia, Midland dropped a 5-3 decision to Doane. Outbursts of emotions followed. Many of these emotions were translated to 140 characters or less on Twitter. Dupic wrote, “I can’t thank the players enough. You did it.”

The Bulldogs finished conference play with a 19-9 record. They rose to the top by going on a crucial seven-game winning streak late in the regular season. During that time, the Concordia pitching staff blossomed behind senior Josh Prater and a quartet of freshmen in Wade Council, Nick Little, Jason Munsch and Desmond Pineda.

Seniors were the backbone of the lineup. There was the steady Fesmire at catcher, impact transfer Jason Galeano at first, star Casey Berg at third, the imposing Christian Montero in right, dependable bat and glove man Jake Adams in center and the reliable Tyler Nelson in left. The whole truly was greater than the sum of the parts in the case of the 2017 Bulldogs.

For most outsiders, a conference championship this spring would mean the program was ahead of schedule. For Dupic, preseason meetings with players gave him a sense that his team could rise higher than its third-place projections. There were so many positives within the program that he just couldn’t measure.

“We always felt like if we didn’t do it this year we would regret it a little bit because we thought we had players that were good enough to earn that,” Dupic said. “You look at those seniors and some of those guys are really good players. For us to be able to send them out on that is truly special. It’s something those guys will be able to have with them for a long time.”

Perhaps some of the biggest crowds the Concordia baseball program has ever seen flocked to the GPAC tournament when the top-seeded Bulldogs had the honor of hosting one of two pods. If Concordia was feeling the pressure as the No. 1 seed, it didn’t show it. The Bulldogs again displayed their mettle by fending off Briar Cliff and Hastings in one-run decisions. They then advanced to the conference tournament title game by taking care of Mount Marty, 8-2, on May 6.

Three days later, a massive crowd came out to Plum Creek Park to watch Concordia and second-seeded Midland battle for the championship. While the Bulldogs suffered defeat, it did not put a damper on the excitement that had been created during a magical run. For the first time in 31 years, Concordia had won a conference title. For the first time ever, it qualified for the national tournament.

“I think it opens up the future a little in terms of creating more clout for the program,” Dupic said. “It’s always fun to be the first and see how much excitement it creates. The support that we received from people within the athletic department and people at Concordia was amazing. There were people reaching out all the time and such a genuine excitement about what was being created. That was really, really cool.”

A 19-8 loss to the Hutchinson Bracket’s top seed aside, the Bulldogs showed they could compete on the national stage. They edged fourth-seeded Jamestown (N.D.), 8-7, in the first game of the opening round. The nailbiter featured one of the season’s most memorable moments when Adams laced a bullet of a three-run homer over the left field wall in the bottom of the eighth, giving Concordia the cushion it would end up needing. In the following day’s elimination game, the Bulldogs showed the sort of mental toughness that defined their season. They came back from a 10-5 deficit, took an 11-10 lead and then saw their season end in heartbreaking fashion at the hands of No. 13 Tabor (Kan.).

More emotions poured out. Mostly, it was a time to give thanks for an enjoyable ride. As Dupic put it, the 2017 team “gave absolutely everything it had.” The current class of seniors wouldn’t have it any other way. The four-year veterans within the program truly stuck it out through thick and thin. A 16-30 record in 2014 failed to derail them. It also failed to prevent players like Berg from transferring in. Berg batted .343 with a .439 on-base percentage and was one of the GPAC’s most consistent performers in 2017.

Dupic’s program has been blessed with not just one, but two Bergs. When surgery and radiation treatments forced Dupic to be away from the team, assistant coach Bryce Berg took on an increased role. For the way he handled it, Dupic couldn’t praise him enough. The GPAC coach of the year award is a credit to the entire staff. Says Dupic, “That is a group coaching award. Anybody who thinks otherwise knows absolutely nothing about college athletics. It is not an individual award.”

Unified all the way from the top-down, the 2017 Concordia baseball team leaves a legacy that will stand the test of time.

“We developed a real unified sense of purpose about what we were doing,” Dupic said. “Those things are so hard to measure. It truly was a situation where our guys were on the same page. Then with my health issues I think there’s a component there where it brings people together a little bit. I think you could see that, especially with the seniors. It’s funny how the Lord works. From the beginning, I kept telling them over and over and over again that there will be a day where it will feel like maybe us coaches are not as involved. That’s what happened. Coach Berg had to do two jobs. The players had to pick it up – and they did.”