The 2022 Concordia Baseball team faced the difficult task of following up the greatest season in program history, one that resulted in a historic trip to the 2021 NAIA World Series. Behind a powerful offense that reset school standards for home runs and runs scored – and a whole lot of postseason grit – the Bulldogs came within one win of returning to Lewiston, Idaho. Though it came up short of that destination, Head Coach Ryan Dupic’s program proved it had staying power on the national stage.
This was a squad you could never count out. Concordia rallied to win a game in Florida that it had trailed 8-1 after seven innings and it put together an unforgettable postseason run that included nine-straight elimination game victories. The Bulldogs shook off some of the bumps in the road, won the GPAC tournament title and finished at 40-17-1 overall.
The results are a byproduct of the talent that has accumulated within the program – and also the strong relationships Dupic has helped foster between teammates, members of the coaching staff and supporters. Said Dupic, “I’m very grateful for the players and the relationships that we share with the parents and families and the support that we’ve received. It was a very special team that did a great job with their backs to the wall and finished strong in the back part of the season. I think that says a lot about them. There were a lot of opportunities for character development in our young men. I’m very proud of them for the way they finished.”
Based on the results, the 2022 campaign goes down as the second most successful season in program history. Four different Bulldogs mashed their way to 18 or more home runs, led by the school record 19 big flies from Jaidan Quinn (followed closely by Jay Adams, Keaton Candor and Joey Grabanski with 18 apiece). The collection of sluggers made the nation take notice on May 19 when Concordia pummeled six home runs in a 16-2 blowout of sixth-ranked Bellevue University. The Bulldogs were suddenly one victory away from securing another NAIA World Series berth. However, the Bruins responded by winning the second game, 5-2.
Not only did Concordia earn a victory over the No. 6-ranked team during national tournament play, it also toppled then 11th-ranked Central Methodist University (Mo.) and defeated a Tabor College (Kan.) foe that was situated just outside the top 25. By the time first pitch arrived on May 19 at the Bellevue Bracket, the Bulldogs were one of only 15 teams left standing across the country. That should have put Concordia in the NAIA postseason top 25, but it landed third among others receiving votes in the poll released on June 8.
The thrilling run at nationals came after the Bulldogs triumphed in five-straight elimination games in the process of capturing the GPAC tournament championship. The conference tourney was highlighted by the play of Adams, who delivered walk-off base hits to sink both Northwestern and Jamestown (GPAC title game) in some of the most memorable moments in Plum Creek Park history. An exhausting few days involved more than the six GPAC tournament games played by Concordia. Members of the team had served as the grounds crew and were tasked with making the field playable following heavy rains. Center fielder Alec Blakestad even gave it a shot with a broken wrist.
Said Dupic of the postseason extravaganza, “Our guys made it really fun to watch them play. I feel a sense of admiration for them to take me on a ride like that. They played so well. That (Bellevue game) was probably one of the best games we’ve played. We swung the bats so well and Caden Johnson did an exceptional job pitching on short rest. So many guys stepped up and pushed through pain, injury and fatigue to really do some special things.”
A Twitter thread from catcher Ben Berg provided a well-written summary of the ups and downs that came with the 2022 season including its share of trials and tribulations. Berg himself missed a good portion of the first half of the campaign with an injury. Ranked 18th nationally in the preseason, the Bulldogs did not receive any top 25 votes when the GPAC tournament rolled around. At one point in the season, Concordia dropped five conference games in a row and had to chase GPAC regular season champion Doane all spring. After a loss to Northwestern in the opening game of the conference tournament, the Bulldogs saw their season hanging in the balance. Nine postseason wins later, the feeling about 2022 had completely turned around.
Tweeted Berg, “I had the feeling of overwhelming gratitude for being part of such a gritty, close-knit bunch. Man I love these guys … this year made me appreciate how special it is to make the national tournament and how difficult it is to make it to Lewiston. We didn’t quite get it done this year, but get ready to see CUNE again real soon.”
As hitting coach Caleb Lang noted, 11 of the 12 Bulldogs who earned All-GPAC honors will be back in 2023. That list includes first teamers in Adams, Grabanski, Alex Johnson, Caden Johnson and Quinn. Adams was also recognized as an NAIA Honorable Mention All-American. Adams was the catalyst for an offense that totaled 113 home runs and 516 runs scored – both school records.
“I think it’s a perfect summary of multiple variables coming together at the same time,” Dupic said. “The most important part is we have good, talented players. Those guys are good hitters. We have to start with a foundation of talent and skill and then you have to work hard to develop, grow and improve and come together as a group. Coach Lang and Coach (Wade) Council have done an exceptional job of leading them. Multiple things came together at the same time to put together something special.”
As Berg mentioned in his Twitter thread, the pitching staff lost a lot from 2021 and made significant strides over the course of the ’22 campaign. The four main starters, Caden Bugarske, Christian Gutierrez and the Johnsons, each won either seven or eight games. All four were instrumental in the postseason run and the bullpen got strong work from the likes of Nathan Buckallew, Jacob Lycan, Shane Whittaker and others. The team’s final ERA rested at 4.47.
No one player will be able to replace the production – or personality – of Candor. He returned for a fifth year in 2022 and leaves with school records for games played (223), runs scored (170), home runs (47), RBIs (188) and walks (108). Candor has played a significant role in propelling the program to places it had never previously been.
“I think the perception of us locally, within the region and even nationally has grown a lot over the course of the past couple years,” Dupic said. “Last year’s trip to the World Series was definitely a breakthrough. I’m as proud – or prouder – of this year’s team to come back the next year and be right on the doorstep again. It showed it wasn’t just a one-year ride. These last couple years have been very special and something that’s been building up for years, dating back to the ’15, ’16 and ’17 teams and the breakthrough with the ’19 team. It’s been building from player to player. I’m very proud of our guys for it.”
Considering the returning firepower and the presence of what will be a more experienced pitching staff in 2023, Concordia Baseball plans on turning a special two-year run into a special three-year run.