Images of dogpiles, championship celebrations and emotional hugs complete with tears of joy filled up the latter part of the 2021 season, which became more and more historic with each pitch. There were many days in the past when moments like these were unimaginable for the Concordia University Baseball program. The ecstasy felt by the ’21 team funneled through program alums such as Gene Faszholz, Courtney Meyer, Jerry Dittenber, Phil Seevers – and the list goes on.
The current stature of the program represents a far cry from the 1990s when the program won a grand total of 28 games. Concordia became more competitive at the turn of the 21st century, but it needed a leader like Ryan Dupic to put it over the hump in terms of winning championships. When he arrived prior to the 2015 season, Dupic began building towards the type of dream season that occurred this spring.
“In reflection, it’s been a really fun year as I think about the players and the families and how much joy they had being part of those experiences,” Dupic said. “The memories they made will last for a long time. That was really special. The success we had on the field makes it very memorable. I was very pleased with the growth the program made this year. I think we made some positive steps and there are some more things we can do to improve. We had a special group of guys and some very good seniors that made a great impact on our program. It was a very fun year.”
For the first time in program history, a season came to a conclusion at the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho. The journey included a school record 42 wins, GPAC regular season and postseason titles and a Bellevue Bracket championship in the NAIA national tournament opening round. The best baseball team in school history pounded the ball to the tune of 90 home runs while the pitching staff was led by ace Jake Fosgett. Four different Bulldog position players broke the previous single-season standard of 11 homers.
No one associated with the ’21 team will ever forget what occurred on May 20 when Concordia staged a dramatic comeback in the winner-take-all opening round matchup with Bellevue University. Down 5-3 in the eighth, Keaton Candor, Jakob Faulk and Teyt Johnson each went deep while turning a two-run deficit into a two-run lead. Faulk’s two-run blast proved to be the game winner and stands as the most significant home run in program history. Nathan Buckallew then closed the game out in the ninth, setting off a second championship dogpile in a 10-day stretch.
There weren’t a lot of dry eyes in the immediate aftermath of that accomplishment. Dupic and his father Rick embraced each other with a hug in shallow left field. There was no holding back the waterworks in a moment of sheer joy. Keep in mind the low point of 2017 when a physically weakened Dupic battled cancer. Very few people know exactly what he went through at the time – he still led the Bulldogs to a GPAC championship that season.
Dupic would rather shift the focus to the players, current and past that have paved the way for an NAIA World Series berth. Said Dupic after the opening round title, “It’s about people and shared experiences together. Just looking around and seeing how happy everybody is, that opportunity is really special. Similar to what I said a week ago, it really makes me reflect on all the people who have played such an instrumental role within this. There are so many to name. I’m just so grateful for everybody that has supported our program so much. We’re so proud to make this happen for Concordia.”
The dream for all NAIA players is to extend the season into late May and make the journey out west to Lewiston, Idaho. The Bulldogs made it a reality when they arrived near Lewiston late on the night of May 25. Three days later, Concordia played on the World Series stage for the first time ever and dropped a 4-2 decision to Indiana University Southeast. The next day, the Bulldogs were eliminated by host Lewis-Clark State College.
A win in Lewiston would have been icing on the cake for Concordia, which was not expected to be among the final 10 teams left playing in all of the NAIA. This was something members of the program had talked about as a goal. Talking and doing are two different things.
Said Dupic soon after the season concluded, “People talk about going to the World Series but until you’re actually able to break through and do it, it’s still just a conversation. It certainly raises the bar for our program and helps people understand what we’re capable of at a place like Concordia. I’m just very grateful that we were able to do it.”
While Fosgett earned GPAC Pitcher of the Year and NAIA honorable mention All-America accolades, the Bulldogs could not have enjoyed this type of season without its thunderous offense. New hitting coach Caleb Lang walked into a perfect situation and helped the offense take a big step forward. Nationally, Concordia ranked 10th in home runs per game (1.67), 10th in batting average (.337), 14th in slugging percentage (.564) and 16th in runs scored per game (8.67).
Freshman Joey Grabanski broke school single season records for home runs (17) and RBIs (60) while leadoff hitter Jayden Adams (team high .380 batting average) set a new standard for hits (76) in a season. One of the more thrilling moments of the regular season occurred on April 26 when Grabanski pulverized a two-run, walk-off home run to beat Morningside. Adams and Grabanski were joined with first team All-GPAC accolades by Keaton Candor and Beau Dorman. Mostly the team’s DH, Dorman delivered a walk-off RBI single to beat MidAmerica Nazarene in an opening round elimination game. Ben Berg and Jesse Garcia were second team All-GPAC selections.
The Fosgett-led pitching staff ranked fifth nationally in total strikeouts with 529. Behind Fosgett, the team’s top starters were Trent Wood (6-2, 3.93 ERA) and Nick Little (8-1, 4.73 ERA). Little became the winningest pitcher in program history with 27 career victories. Out of the ‘pen, Buckallew notched seven saves and four wins and posted a 2.22 ERA. Dupic also regularly called upon the likes of Shane Whittaker (48 K in 26.2 IP), Jacob Lycan (1.37 ERA, 19.2 IP) and Caden Bugarske (2.49 ERA in 25.1 IP).
On March 17, Concordia broke into the official NAIA top 25 poll for the first time, landing at No. 24. The Bulldogs also earned rankings in the next five polls and have moved as high as No. 19.
Any way you measure it, this was a season that set a new standard from which future Concordia Baseball teams will be judged by.
Said Dupic, “My hope is that experiences we’ve had this year within our program set a foundation in the future to try to continue to raise the bar for what we’re capable of. Hopefully this breakthrough creates a higher expectation for our program. I think we’ll have to get back to our base and understanding who we want to be in order to continue to try to have this kind of success and build on it. It’s very challenging. I think it’s easy to assume that you can accomplish something like this by doing the basic stuff. It’s going to take tremendous effort from everybody in the program to sustain this level of success, if not improve upon it. It’s a good, solid foundation for us and for our future. I hope we can build upon it.”
Further reading: On May 26, the Lincoln Journal Star published a piece titled, “Pacing, leadership books and cancer: Inside Concordia baseball’s rapid turnaround under Ryan Dupic.” That article, written by Nate Head, can be read HERE.