BELLEVUE, Neb. – One of its patented home run binges put the Concordia University Baseball on the brink of a second-straight NAIA World Series appearance. However, the Bulldogs came up dry in clutch offensive situations in the winner-take-all duel with Bellevue Bracket host and top-seeded Bellevue University in the NAIA National Championship Opening on Thursday (May 19). Concordia forced the “if necessary” game by pummeling the Bruins, 16-2, in the first contest of the day. Bellevue ultimately celebrated an opening round title by taking the second game, 5-2.
Head Coach Ryan Dupic’s squad grinded through the Bellevue Bracket with four-straight wins after losing its opening game on Monday. The Bulldogs finished the season at 40-17-1 overall. Nine of the wins came during the postseason for perhaps the grittiest team – and certainly the most powerful – in program history.
“My heart breaks to see it end, but my heart’s also at peace because there’s no way to be angry or disappointed,” Dupic said. “I can only feel grateful for just how much these guys have given. I see guys in the dugout with electrical stim units on in between games and guys playing through pain – and Ben Berg catching endless amounts of innings. I just can’t feel anything but appreciation. They’re a special group of people and they really love each other. I’m very grateful having been through all that.”
Needing to win two on Thursday in order to book another trip to Lewiston, Idaho, Concordia got halfway there with a performance that stunned just about everybody in attendance. Six different Bulldogs pulverized a home run apiece in a contest that had already been decided by the middle of the fifth. At that point, it was a 13-0 Concordia lead. In order, the homers were delivered by Jesse Garcia (three-run), Joey Grabanski (solo), Teyt Johnson (two-run), Jay Adams (solo), Jaidan Quinn (two-run) and Keaton Candor (solo). Mentally, everyone had time to prep for another nine innings.
The second game was a different story. Quinn homered for the second time on the day (19th of the season), but Bellevue starting pitcher Alexandro Celiceo always made the big pitches when they mattered most. The Bulldogs recorded nine hits, three walks and two hit batters off Celiceo. On two occasions, Concordia left the bases loaded. A four-run third carried the NAIA sixth-ranked Bruins (48-11) to their 15th all-time World Series berth. It was a measure of revenge after the Bulldogs defeated Bellevue a year ago with a trip to the World Series on the line.
So many of the things the Bulldogs needed to happen on Thursday fell into place. In the first contest, Caden Johnson came back on two days of rest and allowed only two runs in seven innings while picking up his eighth win of the season. He cruised along while the offense kept raking. In game two, it was Cale Mathison who stepped up in a big way. He covered 4.2 innings without surrendering a run. For the day, Concordia outscored Bellevue, 18-7, and outhit the opposition, 30-14.
On the national stage, the Bulldogs proved their lineup is an elite one. Quinn homered twice on Wednesday and then twice more on Thursday and finished as the team leader with a program single season home run record of 19. Concordia went deep 13 times over its six national tournament games and pushed the program record for team home runs in a single season to 113. Adams, Candor and Grabanski belted 18 homers apiece this season and the Bulldogs also set a new school record with 516 runs scored.
Said Dupic, “Last year we had such a good season (offensively) that I couldn’t really expect it to be that good again. I just thought it was so good that how could we do that again. They raised the bar again. It speaks to the players. It speaks to Coach (Caleb) Lang and to Wade (Council) and to all of the guys investing in them. It’s really special. They make it look easy – it’s really hard.”
On Thursday, six Bulldogs collected at least three hits, including five apiece from Garcia and Grabanski. Garcia got things rolling in the first inning of the first game with a two-out, three-run blast. In his final day as a college baseball player, Candor rapped out three hits and was greeted near home plate with a 12-pack of Mountain Dew after his home run. It was also a fine tournament for Teyt Johnson, who went 3-for-4 with a homer on Thursday.
Of the 12 Bulldogs who earned all-conference recognition in 2022, 11 will return next spring. The lone exception is Candor, a five-year regular and one of the program’s all-time greats. The native of Merrill, Iowa, owns program career records for games played (123), runs scored (170), walks (108), home runs (47) and RBIs (188). He finished one hit shy of Zak Goodrich’s program career hits record of 234.
Champion of the GPAC tournament, this 2022 Concordia team leaves a lasting mark. It played the absolute maximum number of postseason games in the conference and national tournaments (opening round) while shaking off losses to begin both tournaments. The Bulldogs have won a combined 82 games over the past two seasons.
“It’s incredibly hard,” Dupic said of winning nine-straight elimination games. “These guys played six games in the last few days at a national tournament against nationally relevant teams. It really speaks to the heart of the team and the job these kids did fighting until the end.”
Added Dupic, “I think we have one of the best programs in the country over the past two years.”