And then there was one.
The Concordia University baseball team, quite possibly the most unlikely of champions, defied the odds and became just that — champions — winning the Avista-NAIA World Series held in Lewiston, Idaho.
The Eagles, seeded No. 9 in the 10-team World Series, went 5-1 in the double-elimination tournament, taking home the school's first national crown in baseball, culminating with their 9-3 victory over Lubbock Christian (Texas) in Friday's winner-take-all title game.
"It's an unbelievable feeling right now, I'm still a little numb," Concordia head coach Mike Grahovac said Saturday as he and his team prepared to board a plane for the flight home.
Senior center fielder Matt Ivanoff hit .417 (10-for-24) with seven runs scored and eight RBIs in the Series, played stellar defense, and was named the Series Most Valuable Player.
"It hasn't sunk in yet," Ivanoff said. "I still can't believe it. It's going to take a couple days."
The Eagles thrived in the underdog role, which wasn't necessarily unwarranted. They finished in fourth place in the Golden State Athletic Conference regular season, and were left out of the NAIA Coaches Top 25 rankings throughout the eight voting polls from November, 2010 to May, 2011.
"We loved being the underdog," Grahovac said. "We used it to our advantage to get motivated and show everyone what we could do."
"We were one of those teams that didn't get credit we deserved all year," said outfielder Ryan Sheeks, who homered in each of the Eagles' first two Series games. "To be able to prove everybody wrong, game after game, was a lot of fun."
Concordia was just 18-16 on April 4, before turning around its season in what seemed like an instant. The Eagles reeled off 12 consecutive wins, and finished the season with a school-record in victories, going 43-19 by winning 25 of their final 28 games.
They were a remarkable 12-1 mark in the post-season, which includes the GSAC Tournament, the NAIA opening round bracket and the World Series. Their only loss in the post-season came to Embry-Riddle (Fla.), which entered the World Series as the No. 1 seed.
"We had a meeting after that one game (when Concordia fell to 18-16) and one of the coaches just said, 'You know what? We have to win,' " Sheeks said. "Everybody knew what they needed to do to get where we needed to be."
"We went back to hard work," Grahovac said. "We didn't give up. The players believed in each other, the coaches believed in each other. We trusted each other, and we took off."
Concordia got contributions from up and down the lineup, and from the pitching staff, both the starters and relievers, in their post-season run.
In addition to Ivanoff's World Series MVP, the Eagles' Kyle Konicek, Robbie Knowles, Tyler Derby and Josh White were named to the World Series all-tournament team.
"It wasn't just one through nine, it took everybody on the bench, our fans, everyone believed," Ivanoff said. "Most of the credit goes to our bench, they were the heart and soul of the team. They were side by side with us the whole way."
The championship game was tight throughout, Lubbock Christian leading, 2-1, after three innings before a three-run triple by Knowles in the top of the fourth gave Concordia a 4-2 lead.
Lubbock Christian cut the lead to 4-3 in the bottom of the fourth, and then both teams' pitchers got stingy from there.
The game was still 4-3 until the ninth, when Concordia broke open the game with five runs to take a 9-3 lead, giving Concordia starter Blake Harrison some breathing room in the bottom of the ninth.
Harrison finished it off, his fifth complete game of the season, a six-hitter in the school's biggest game ever.
"We ran into some bad luck at the beginning of the year, we lost some games we shouldn't have lost, and that brought us down," Ivanoff said. "But we knew we could win games, and we did."
Concordia's NAIA World Series results, game by game:
Concordia 7, Faulkner (Ala.) 2: Dean Persinger picked up his seventh win of the season for Concordia, allowing two runs and four hits in six-plus innings while striking out seven in the World Series opener.
Josh White picked up the save with three innings of scoreless relief.
The Eagles beat Faulkner starter R.L. Eisenbach, who lost for only the second time this season, falling to 14-2.
Faulkner, seeded No. 8, scored the first run of the game in the top of the second inning but Persinger kept the damage at a minimum by working out of a bases-loaded, one-out jam. Persinger walked five in the game and also had to pitch out of a bases-loaded situation in the fifth inning.
"(Dean) competed. That's him, he's a bulldog," Concordia head coach Mike Grahovac said. "He may not always have his best stuff, but we know how much heart he's got, and how much he's going to give us. It's a championship round, and so we're going to extend some guys out and go at it."
In the bottom of the second Ryan Sheeks hit an Eisenbach pitch over the left-field fence to tie the game at 1-1, Sheeks' third home run of the season.
Danny Casey was hit by a pitch and eventually scored on a single by Kyle Konicek that gave Concordia a 2-1 lead, and they held the lead the rest of the way.
"That (home run) was huge, it got us on the board," Concordia head coach Mike Grahovac said. "They got a run, and we got two back. Sheeks burst the bubble for us, and set the nerves aside and let us go. We became ourselves and played."
Embry-Riddle (Fla.) 9, Concordia 3: The Eagles could not have gotten off to a better start, taking an early 3-0 lead and relying on ace starter Blake Harrison in the second round of the championship bracket.
Matt Ivanoff drove in Concordia's first run of the game with an RBI groundout in the third. The Eagles added a second run in the inning on Kyle Konicek's RBI triple.
In the fourth, Ryan Sheeks hit his second homer in the first two games of the World Series, and Concordia was up, 3-0. But top-seeded Embry-Riddle responded with two in the bottom of the fourth on Keaton Stroud's two-run homer, and tied the game with another run off Harrison in the fifth.
Harrison was done after five, having given up three runs and five hits, leaving with the game tied at 3-3.
Concordia's offense, however, stalled the rest of the way and top-seed Embry Riddle got to the Eagles' bullpen for six runs to send Concordia to the elimination bracket.
Concordia 7: Oklahoma Baptist 5: Faced with playing win-or-go home games the rest of the way, Concordia responded with a victory over No. 5 Oklahoma Baptist in its first game in the elimination bracket.
Concordia relied on the performance of Matt Ivanoff, who went 4 for 4 with four RBIs and three runs scored to keep the Eagles' national championship hopes alive. Ivanoff also had a diving catch in center field that saved a couple of runs.
"Matt is our Superman ... We call him 'Mr. America'," Concordia head coach Mike Grahovac said. "That guy is an incredible player, from the way he runs the bases to the way he plays defense all-out. That's the kind of player we're looking for."
Concordia starter Brent Clapper (9-4) gave up five runs and 11 hits, but he lasted 8 1/3 innings to give the Eagles' bullpen a needed break. Oklahoma Baptist's big blow off Clapper was the grand slam by Alan Trayler in the fourth inning that turned a 3-1 Concordia lead into a 5-3 Oklahoma Baptist advantage.
"I think I started off with a little bit of extra adrenaline," Clapper said. "Everything was a little bit firmer, and then the grand slam went out. I just knew I had to trust my defense and let the offense get us back into it. Once I did that, I was able to settle back down again."
That allowed the Concordia offense – and particularly Ivanoff – to get busy. The Eagles cut their deficit to 5-4 on Bryan Nicholson's sacrifice fly, then went up for good on Ivanoff's two-run triple in the sixth. Ivanoff then scored on a throwing error.
"The past couple of games, I had been pressing myself too hard, trying to do too much," said Ivanoff, who went into the game 0 for 7 in the World Series. "Today, I just tried to commit to relaxing, having a good time and staying with the plan. The plan was to stay middle-opposite field, and that's what I did today."
Concordia still needed help from the bullpen, Clapper leaving the game with one out in the ninth and the potential tying runs on second and third. But reliever Ryan Day got Reece Alnas to line into a double play to end it and move the Eagles forward in the elimination bracket.
Concordia 7, Oklahoma City 4: Concordia took most of the drama out of this one with a six-run second inning, leading to a victory over No. 2 Oklahoma City.
The victory was Concordia's 40th of the season, the first 40-win season in program history.
One game after the Eagles relied on the one-man show of Matt Ivanoff, they got contributions from up and down the lineup, as six different players had at least one RBI and four players – Kyle Konicek, Bryan Nicholson, Ryan Sheeks and Tyler Derby – had two hits apiece.
Concordia starting pitcher Jake Hovis, who was making his first start since March 19 and only his third start of the year, gave up four runs and seven hits in six innings, a serviceable performance considering the Eagles' offensive output.
"I just went with a feeling (to start Hovis)," Concordia head coach Mike Grahovac said. "Jake's got some good stuff, and I had a feeling that with these guys being able to run, the fact that he's also got a good pickoff would come into play. He started the game off with a bunch of ground balls, which really helped us. He gave us six innings solid, and then it was just up to our bullpen."
Josh White finished it up, giving up only one hit in three scoreless innings.
Concordia 8, LSU Shreveport 4: Concordia's victory put them in the National Championship title game for the first time in school history, also becoming just the third team from the Golden State Athletic Conference to reach the championship round in the 55 years of the NAIA World Series.
"We're all excited right now," Concordia head coach Mike Grahovac said. "They're doing a great job of pounding the strike zone, playing good defense and getting clutch hitting. We're being aggressive and having fun out there."
For the second game in a row, the Eagles took a big lead early, scoring three runs in both the first and second innings against No. 4-ranked LSU Shreveport. Matt Ivanoff and Kyle Konicek, hitting 1-2 in the batting order, led the way, each with three hits, two runs scored and one RBI.
Concordia was also aggressive on the basepaths, stealing four bases in the game.
"It's been a part of our game all year," Grahovac said. "We just happened to be really aggressive today and it worked out for us. We did what we needed to do to get an early lead, and take the pressure off our pitching a little bit."
Dean Persinger handled it from the pitching side, giving up four runs and seven hits in 7 2/3 innings, striking out 10. Jacob McBride finished it off with 1 1/3 scoreless innings.
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