As it turned out, the Concordia University baseball team played its final games of 2020 on Friday the 13th (March 13). Even at the time, the Bulldogs knew the remainder of the campaign was in question. If this was going to be it, the team was going to enjoy it. Dominant lefty pitcher Jason Munsch threw a no-hitter and Concordia pummeled Briar Cliff by a combined score of 33-1 in the doubleheader. Lots of fun indeed.
Sixth-year head coach Ryan Dupic and members of the program believe they had found something on that day. Coming off a GPAC regular-season title in 2019, the Bulldogs positioned themselves for another season of contention.
“I think we were one of the best teams in the league,” Dupic said. “We were certainly in that place and had a chance to have a really good season. I’m proud of them for putting it together and being in that spot. We’ve really built a solid foundation and a family feel. Now I want to try and find a way to raise the bar in terms of the way we prepare and our attention to detail on certain things. I don’t necessarily think any of those things are weaknesses, but there is room for us to grow as a program in that. We’re starting from a good place but you can’t take anything for granted.”
As one can tell, Dupic is already thinking about what’s next, but for at least a moment it’s time to dwell on the abbreviated 2020 season that saw Concordia go 14-7. Prior to the start of the season, senior All-GPAC outfielder Wade Council dared to mention NAIA World Series as a goal for this program. Simply reaching the national tournament is no easy task, but there should be no discounting the potential of a team with a one-two pitching punch of Munsch and Nick Little at the top of the rotation.
Munsch generated stories that appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha World-Herald with his sterling four starts this spring (59 strikeouts and no earned runs in 26 innings). Things also seemed to be clicking for a lineup that had slashed .300/.401/.454 (BA/OBP/SLG) through the early going this season. Keaton Candor (.400 BA, 5 HR, .764 SLG) and Jesse Garcia (.296 BA, 7 HR, .662 SLG) had been thumping the ball and the Bulldogs were averaging more than 8.0 runs per game.
“Jesse Garcia really changed our lineup,” Dupic said. “Once he got going he was really going. He was driving the baseball and hitting for big-time power and doing it near the top of the order. Then we had depth throughout the lineup. Guys were driving the ball at the bottom of the order and that’s hard to find people who can do damage up-and-down the order. I think the offense had a chance to do some good things.”
The 2020 team had a new-look infield with freshmen in shortstop Jayden Adams (.321 BA, 16 RBIs) and third baseman Jakob Faulk (.333 BA, 2 HR, 15 RBIs) on the left side and senior second baseman Thomas Sautel returning from injury. Veterans in Candor, Council and first baseman Evan Bohman were also a big part of the equation along with a productive catching duo of Ben Berg and Beau Dorman. Seven players with at least 35 plate appearances were hitting .296 or better.
Berg and Dorman had the pleasure of catching a staff that was again the GPAC leader in team earned run average. Little may have been overshadowed a bit by the work of Munsch, but his first four starts had all been winning efforts. The native of Lithia, Fla., returned to Concordia after being named the GPAC Pitcher of the Year in 2018. This spring, Little carried a 1.32 ERA and 35 strikeouts in 27.1 innings.
“He’s a winner,” Dupic said. “He knows how to compete. He was 4-0 this year in four starts. He just wins. He knows how to find a way to get the job done. When he’s at his best he’s really good. What’s special about Nick is when he’s not at his best he can still win. He threw a no-hitter and he won a game where he gave up 10 hits. That level of consistency and knowing what you’re going to get out of him is so huge.”
It seems fair to say the Bulldogs would have put together additional GPAC doubleheader sweeps when Munsch and Little were on the mound. Beyond them, Dupic felt comfortable when he could give the ball to closer Ryan Samuelson (five saves, 1.35 ERA) with a late lead. In terms of innings pitched, other key hurlers this spring had been the likes of Benjamin Coldiron, Lukas Diehm, Caden Johnson, Zach Pinkerton and Shane Whittaker.
Unfortunately, their progression was halted for the remainder of this season when the NAIA and the GPAC announced the end of spring athletic competition on March 16. Dupic referred to the situation as “unchartered waters.” Dupic and his team took a few days to decompress and to process the news. There were challenging and emotional conversations that followed. Dupic went on to express that this was the right thing to do and that eventually everyone will appreciate the time they have had together.
Said Dupic, “There were a couple things that were really tough to swallow. I did feel like we were starting to come into our own a bit. I know the back end of our Tucson trip didn’t result in as many wins as we wanted, but we were learning a lot about our team. We played on a Tuesday in Tucson and drove 24 hours back and came out and played exceptionally well on Friday (at Briar Cliff). I think our guys were in a good place. You saw really good pitching at the front of the rotation and back of the bullpen. We had the ability to explode at times offensively. I think it was a team capable of competing for a conference championship.”
Dupic also raved about the way the team’s chemistry was coming around, saying it was “as good as we’ve had.” He also had kind words for a senior class that played a significant role in two GPAC regular-season titles. They do have the option of returning in 2021 after the NAIA ruled not to charge any spring sport athletes with a year of competition. Dupic expects some seniors to take advantage of that ruling.
The coronavirus pandemic changed a lot of the dynamics. Munsch hopes to hear his name called in the Major League Draft (which might not happen until mid-July) and others are likely still wondering what their summers will look like. Recruiting will be different on all levels of college baseball. Dupic is advising potential recruits to be patient as college coaches work through the situation and attempt to evaluate prospects without games being played.
Eventually baseball will return. Says Dupic, “Within the past two years we’ve lost some tremendously high-character players and now I want to see who the people are who will make a stand and say that we have to do this better on a random day at practice. This is really going to be a big test for these guys. Some of them, all they’ve really known is success so it’s easy to take that for granted. We have to go to work and get better.”