Concordia University's baseball team has been about as hot as any team in the country the past few weeks, but the Eagles still needed one more victory to qualify for the NAIA World Series.
And to complicate matters, they would have to do it against Golden State Athletic Conference nemesis Cal Baptist.
Thanks to the hot bat of Bryan Nicholson, Concordia (38-18) topped Cal Baptist, 4-2, in the championship game of the NAIA National Championship Opening Round – Riverside Bracket on Saturday, and will play in the Avista-NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho beginning May 27.
Nicholson's two-out, three-run home run in the seventh inning turned the game around and sent Concordia to the NAIA World Series for the second time in school history, the last time coming in 2006.
Starting pitcher Brent Clapper gave up two runs in 7 1/3 innings to continue the Eagles' string of clutch pitching performances.
"When we all got together in September we knew the type of team we had," said Concordia head coach Mike Grahovac. "We knew the talent we had with a lot of the guys returning, and we knew the guys we brought in were the right fit. It's a close group.
"From Day One, the guys practiced hard, they did everything the right way, they did what we asked of them. They got dirty in practice, so when it was game time, they knew what to do."
Saturday's win continued the Eagles' incredible run. Since losing to Vanguard on April 4, Concordia has won 20 of its past 22 games, including eight in a row. They won all three games of the Riverside regional to advance, beating British Columbia on Thursday and Cal Baptist on Friday.
Cal Baptist was the top seed in the regional, was ranked No. 3 nationally and had beaten Concordia in all four of their regular-season matchups. But Concordia turned it around when it mattered most, beating Cal Baptist on consecutive days to advance.
"Me and Gary are good friends," Grahovac said of Cal Baptist head coach Gary Adcock. "He's been a mentor of mine since I've been here. When we saw that we were matched up with them in the regional we had a feeling we would meet them. It feels good to beat them, for our players, for our coaching staff, for our fans, but it's good no matter who it is we need to beat."
Nicholson was clutch in all three regional games, hitting the three-run homer on Saturday, driving in all four runs of a 4-3 win over Cal Baptist on Friday, and going 3 for 4 with three RBIs in a 6-5 win over British Columbia on Thursday.
"Our offense this season was solidified by Bryan Nicholson," Grahovac said of his designated hitter, who is hitting .423 with nine homers and 61 RBIs, tops on the team even though he missed 2 ½ weeks after suffering facial fractures from being hit in the face by a pitch.
"He had facial surgery and they had to put in four pins and two plates," Grahovac said. "He tried to come back even earlier but he couldn't get a doctor's appointment. So he'd watch the pitchers in the bullpen to make sure he could get any fear out he might have had. But when he came back, he never missed a beat. The first at-bat when he came back, he got a base hit."
The Eagles also got clutch pitching performances on the mound, ending with Clapper's outing Saturday. On Friday, Blake Harrison pitched a complete game to beat Cal Baptist, improving to 7-1 with a 2.67 ERA in 14 starts.
In the regional opener against British Columbia, Concordia got a stellar relief outing from Sam Lindsey, who allowed just one run in 6 2/3 innings and gave the Eagles offense a chance to rally from an early deficit.
The defense was good throughout, and finished Friday's win over Cal Baptist with a spectacular running catch by center fielder Matt Ivanoff.
"The guys on this team believe in each other," Grahovac said. "The offense believes the pitching staff will keep them in the game. The pitching staff believes the offense will get them some runs. And the defense has been something we've emphasized all year. It's all come together."
Even though the Eagles will have two weeks before the World Series starts, Grahovac believes his team can maintain the momentum it's built.
"You want to be hot at the end of the season," Grahovac said. "But we still won't let up. Even in the ninth inning (Saturday) we're up two and we're still saying, 'Win every pitch, it's not finished yet, keep your composure.' There is no panic."
Grahovac has taken Concordia to the NAIA World Series in his third season as the team's head coach, after going 49-50 his first two years.
"Me and (assistant coach) Joe (Turgeon) knew it would take a few years to get where we are now," Grahovac said. "It was a matter of getting into our system and getting the guys to trust us, and going from there."