Entering the 2019 season, the previous five GPAC regular-season baseball championship trophies had been dispersed among five separate programs. In other words, it’s been a league without a true top dog. After winning the league title in 2017, the Concordia University baseball team dropped down to seventh place in 2018 as the topsy-turvy conference trend continued.
Who knows how the GPAC race will play out in 2020, but at least for now, the Bulldogs have earned the right to call themselves one of the league’s top programs. A 23-5 conference mark in 2019 brought another regular-season trophy to Seward and ensured that the departing seniors would leave a lasting, positive legacy.
Says 2019 GPAC Coach of the Year Ryan Dupic, “There was a piece of everybody who wanted to show it wasn’t just a one-year-wonder thing. Since I’ve been here it’s kind of been a different team (winning the conference) every year. For us to be able to stabilize and do that (win two of three titles) is very rewarding. That was the message we sent to the team. For those seniors that’s a legacy they have as players who helped solidify this program as a consistent competitor. You can talk about it, but until you do it you’re really not there.”
Those who have been members of the 2017 and 2019 championship teams (and NAIA national qualifiers) have aided in bringing Concordia baseball into its golden age. When Dupic arrived, he could not sell a history of past success to potential recruits. At one point in the 1990s, the Bulldogs dropped 111 games in a row against NAIA competition. Those days are long gone – and the 2019 squad helped reinforce that point.
Beginning in late March this past season, Dupic’s boys got on a roll like no other Concordia baseball team had ever experienced. To go a step further, only one GPAC squad had ever begun the conference season with a longer unbeaten streak. Following the lead of a dominant pitching staff and eventual GPAC Player of the Year Christian Meza, the Bulldogs blazed to a 15-0 league record for the longest win streak in school history. Each time it looked like the streak was about to end, someone new seemed to step up to keep it intact.
“I was really proud of our offense this year. It was a different guy each time,” Dupic said. “That speaks to being part of a team and it speaks to the way that guys support one another. We had a team of guys that stuck with things, didn’t get selfish, continued to support the team and make it about success as a whole. Our pitching staff was fantastic this year and justifiably got a lot of the credit, but our position players were a lot better this year than they were a year ago in terms of on-field performance.
“It’s a life lesson. It goes beyond individual awards. That moves into being able to understand how to work together. You’ll carry that with you forever.”
The life lessons might make the statistics seem a bit trivial, but they do help us explain how the 2019 team accomplished what it did. By season’s end, there was no longer any argument to be made. The ’19 pitching staff is the best in school history. The 2.31 ERA within conference play led the GPAC by a few country miles and the 501 overall strikeouts obliterated the former school single season record of 382 (set in 2018).
One opposing head coach even commented that Concordia had four aces in its rotation. Four of the five first team all-conference pitching spots went to Bulldogs – Dylan DuRee, Jake Fosgett, Sasha Jabusch and Jason Munsch. A lefty from Campbell, Calif., Munsch is now the program’s all-time strikeout king after a stellar 2019 campaign. He struck out 12 hitters in an eight-inning gem in a national tournament win over Clarke. Things came together probably better than Dupic had even imagined.
“I think the talent was there,” Dupic said. “A lot of those guys you saw be successful had either had a taste of it or had done it for a year, but had also mixed in some experience where they hadn’t been as good. I think they learned about themselves as people, learned in terms of the preparation it takes and learned the mindset and mentality you have to have on a consistent basis. You saw that with Jason. He was able to take it to another level. You saw the growth and maturation of many of our guys.”
The program record book is a reflection of what has taken place in recent years. Dupic says that some baseball alums who have reached out to him have expressed congratulatory messages – and have also joked that the current teams need to stop breaking their records. Middle infield mainstays Meza (doubles) and Logan Ryan (games played) set new career standards before graduating. Meza’s name is all over the program’s top 10 lists in key statistical categories.
More important than that, Meza has helped change a culture, the standard and the perception of what it means to be associated with Concordia baseball.
“I think people do understand that we’re a more competitive program now,” Dupic said. “Social media is obviously a pretty strong influencer right now, and I think people see it through that. It’s really cool having the alumni reach out and talk about how excited they are to see the program doing so well. It’s nice to connect with them and see their desire to be part of the program. Obviously we have some positive momentum.”
Now Dupic and his staff, which includes Bryce Berg, look forward to continuing to recruit and to the return of their guys in the fall. One of the strange sights will be a completely new middle infield. Fortunately, a nice core returns. That vaunted pitching staff should be solid again and the lineup will be anchored by the likes of Evan Bohman and Wade Council. Dupic says the focus currently is on getting some players healthy and the continuation of the right ways of thinking.
Says Dupic, “Every year represents a new challenge and I think the challenge of this team is just humility and staying with the process that made you successful. Then it’s about taking it to another level. It’s a lot easier to climb the mountain than it is to stay at the top of the mountain. The big challenge is to sustain the type of culture and chemistry that was created in ’17 and ’19. It’s a fun challenge to know how hard that’s going to be.”