CHICO STATE BASEBALL 2013: A POST-SCRIPT
Today was supposed to be the day the Chico State Wildcats baseball team was hopping on a charter flight to the Raleigh-Durham Airport as they prepared for the Division II Baseball College World Series in Cary, North Carolina.
It was “supposed” to be the day.
Take it from someone who remembers every bit of minutiae when it comes to my beloved Chico State Wildcats. Of course the joys sit at the forefront of my mind when it comes to my favorite baseball team. But, the losses linger, they haunt, in moments alone in my sporting mode I become fixated on situations, plays, pitches and ultimately what went wrong.
For three days this 2013 version of the Chico State Wildcats were playing magical baseball. An offensive explosion against top seed Cal State Monterey Bay was followed by pitching gems by Troy Neiman and Kagen Hopkins against host Dixie State and Grand Canyon University. Chico was playing at a level we had seen through the first 10 weeks of the season. Timely hits, clutch pitching and incredible defense that demoralized Dixie and Canyon on Friday and Saturday afternoons. And then, in an instant, it all changed.
Sunday brought a new set of challenges. Grand Canyon had escaped a furious Sonoma State rally on Saturday night to meet Chico for the Regional Championship, knowing they had to beat Chico State twice. Admittedly a daunting task when you considered the Antelopes pitching was spent. They had to beat a team that had given up only 4 runs in three games…..TWICE in a six hour span.
But, the signs were there early. Chico State’s hard hit lasers against Canyon starter Trent Wilson were atoms hit right at fielders. And as line drive after line drive found the webbing of Grand Canyon gloves an ominous feeling hovered over Bruce Hurst Stadium. It turned even more sour after Brian Kraft hammered a three run homer in the 4th inning on a 1-2 breaking ball in. Just as I said on the radio, “If you make a mistake away, it’s a single, if you make a mistake in, it’s a home run.” The mistake was in, and Chico fell behind 5-2.
Undeterred Chico State kept scratching and clawing in that first game, adding a run in the fifth, two more in the seventh and taking the lead in the eighth. But, there was still an aire of apprehension as Chico took a 6-5 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning. For starters they had left the bases loaded in both the seventh and eight innings. The need to add-on runs against a very good Grand Canyon team was evident, but the Cats just couldn’t get that one hit to tack on two, three even maybe four runs.
There comes a time in all CLOSE championship games where you have a chance to win the game, right there, delivering the dagger. Chico had numerous chances. They had the lead, but they hadn’t delivered the dagger. So, after a one out error, that was nearly an incredible play, there was perfectly placed bunt hit and a base hit by a pesky .240 hitting number nine hitter in the Grand Canyon line-up. With two outs and the bases loaded, in stepped another irritating yet incredibly clutch hitter in Paul Pannacionne for the Lopes. Throughout the tournament he had flashed his leather at short-stop, but on this occasion with his team down to their final four outs, he would stripe a fastball into dead-center and the Lopes would grab a 7-6 lead.
Chico State would never have a lead the rest of the day.
Four outs away. So close, so frustratingly close for a group of 17 seniors to get back to Cary, North Carolina came to a crushing end nearly four hours later when Grand Canyon won the night-cap 6-2 and punched their ticket to North Carolina.
Don’t mistake my melancholy for any lack of respect for the Grand Canyon Antelopes. Grand Canyon won this thing. They stepped up and made plays and pitches when they had to. Chico State didn’t. That isn’t the hard part for the Wildcats and their fans. The hard part lays in the days ahead.
For two decades the Chico State Baseball program has been dominant. A true jewel in Division II West Region baseball. There are not any teams that are crying for a program that has won 8 regional titles in a 17 year stretch. Compare those numbers to other programs nationally. It is virtually unparalleled. But, with the winning comes the disappointment of wanting to do even more. It’s the nature of the game. It’s the nature of the AT & T commericial. “We Want More, We Want More.”
In 2000, the Wildcats were trying to make a fourth straight trip to Montgomery, Alabama and the Division II College World Series. They were the defending National Champions. Everyone was returning and it was Montgomery or bust. The team hadn’t lost a double-header since February of 1999 and they went into Championship Saturday having to be beaten twice by Fort Hays State in Kansas. They were……………I have never been around a sadder and more despondent group of athletes in my life. It was a terrible experience. One bad day probably cost the best team in the country a chance to repeat.
The 2006 season mirrors 2013 in many respects. In Head Coach Lindsay Meggs’ final year, his team was underperforming in an epic fashion. So, midway through the season, Meggs publicly laid into his team telling assembled media members. “The fact is they are not performing up to standard because they won’t listen. They don’t like me, and I don’t like them. And soon, it will be all over for us.” What transpired over the next six weeks was some of the best baseball we have ever seen in the Cardinal and White. In fact the Wildcats rolled into the post-season and came within one strike of beating the University of Tampa in the national title game in Montgomery. 2-1 lead, top of the ninth, two outs, two strikes for literally 15 minutes……Tampa tied it and then won it in the 10th. A crushing ending to an amazing transformation for a team that was left for dead six weeks earlier. Meggs would tell everyone who would listen when the run was over. “I have never been more proud of a team, than this one.”
Fast forward to 2013. Chico starts the season 30-6. I can still see this team, and I mean the WHOLE team playing hacky-sack at the Sacramento Airport after taking three-of-four on the road in Pomona. Head coach Dave Taylor telling me, “look how much these guys like each other, and you know what, I really like them a lot. They are a great group of kids. So much fun to coach.” The final 12 games would be at home, and what transpired over the next few weeks was one of the worst meltdowns we have seen from a Wildcat baseball team. Losing 10 of their final 14 the Cats limped into the regional and, honestly, they were not considered one of the favorites. But, for three days they played like the team we had come to love. Making plays, showing grit, grinding and finding a way.
When the dust had settled the plaque went to the Division-I bound Antelopes while the Wildcats trudged off for a 14 hour bus ride back home. Baseball can be cruel, it ends so suddenly because you are having so much fun you never think it will end. And so, when it does, you sit back, re-collect and savor the entire journey. That is what the 2000 and 2006 teams do. The season didn’t end for those teams EXACTLY how they wanted. But, in the end, those clubs remember the friendships, the battles, the great moments, and even the heart-break. Why ? Well, the kinship of being a Chico State Wildcat player is like no other. You have guys who played together 20 years ago that still meet on weekly basis down in So-Cal. Being a Chico State Wildcat Baseball player doesn’t end when your playing career is over. You are vested…..forever. That is what this place is all about.
So, for these 2013 Wildcats they enjoyed the view from the mountain-top, slipped into an abyss and incredibly gave us three days of baseball that had us dreaming that magical dream again.
It’s the journey boys. Its living. It may have been a roller-coaster but thank you for letting this broadcaster and your loyal fans come along for the ride. You will look back one day and cherish every single moment.