The Ottawa University baseball team’s championship aspirations were put on hiatus until next season.
The Braves were in the middle of a possible KCAC title run this season when the plug was pulled on the season in mid-March. At the time, Ottawa was in second place in the KCAC at 6-2, one game behind Sterling. Ottawa went 17-9 overall and was poised to eclipse the win total of last year’s team (20-26) in the next series.
“Unfortunately, we could not complete it all,” second-year Ottawa coach Gabe Grinder said. “I felt bad for them that they could not complete the turnaround this year. That was a little bit of a sting to our guys to have that happen.”
The Braves were coming together as a team after a slow start when the season abruptly ended, the coach said.
“We were starting to hit our stride on March 1, which is always the time you want to figure it out,” Grinder said. “That is when conference play heats up. We struggled a little early in February. We found our identity on March 1. We started playing really good baseball. It was a testament to those guys believing in what we talked about.”
The Braves won 10 of their final 13 games before the season was halted because of COVID-19 concerns. Ottawa was coming off a three-game series sweep of McPherson. In the sweep, the Braves scored 36 runs.
“Our guys could start to see it and feel it, maybe we are a championship team,” Grinder said. “Especially after the series against McPherson. That was supposed to be the (top) team in the conference and we went in and swept them. They started to believe that coach Grinder was not crazy, maybe we are going to win a championship.”
Grinder said success came because of belief and dedication to team principles.
“They worked their butts off all fall and through the spring,” he said. “It was a group of guys that bought in and believed what we were telling them in recruiting. We were not the most talented team out there, but we played really, really hard. That allowed us to win a bunch of games like we did.”
Building a foundation
The Ottawa staff knew it needed to recruit players that could compete at a high level after the 2019 team finished in the bottom half of the KCAC.
“We went out and recruited a bunch of junior college guys this past year,” Grinder said. “I love high school guys. The high school guys would have taken a little longer to turn it around. I wanted to inject some life (into the program) quick.”
The plan came to fruition. Grinder brought in 17 junior college transfers and mixed in the returners along with a few impact freshmen.
“They all had a huge impact,” Grinder said. “I was telling them we were trying to win a championship. Some people thought I was crazy when we were 20-26 and I was telling everybody we would win a championship.”
Grinder’s blueprint for success came from KCAC rival Oklahoma Wesleyan, where he spent three years as pitching coach and recruiting coordinator. In 2017, the Eagles played in the NAIA World Series and was ranked fifth in the NAIA in 2018.
“I came from Oklahoma Wesleyan where we won a whole lot of games in two years,” he said. “There was a good pedigree there. I don’t think people slept on us. Guys were ready for some better baseball.”
Grinder discovered new talent with a winning mindset.
“We needed to pitch it better, hit it better, everything,” he said. “We went out and found guys that could do just that. We were a little short on the mound. We brought in some guys that were coming off injuries. Unfortunately, those guys did not bounce back like what we were hoping. They were still good enough to keep us in games.”
The Braves were an offensive juggernaut. Ottawa opened the season with a 21-0 victory over Southwestern Assemblies of God.
“Offensively, we were really special,” Grinder said. “We had some junior college guys that hit .320 and up. They believed in what we were doing offensively. They did not want to strikeout, which we did a ton of during my first year. The new guys bought into a new approach and battled with two strikes. Because of that, we finished in the top 15 in the country in offense this year.”
The Braves played all their games on the road, while the baseball field was renovated with a turf surface. It was announced in November the baseball and softball fields along with the practice field at the Peters Sports Complex would receive turf.
Delays in construction put the baseball team on the road and was forced to find unusual places to practice.
“We never practiced on a baseball field,” Grinder said. “The only time they stepped onto a field was on game days. We were always on the road. It wears on you. We made adjustments in practice. It was the shortest practices I have ever run in my life.”
The players embraced the circumstances, Grinder said.
“It can go one of two ways when you get into situations like that,” he said. “Either you tank because you want to whine and complain about it or you put your head down and keep grinding it out. That is what our guys chose to do. It was a group of guys that did not care if we were on the football turf, in the gymnasium or we were finally playing. They wanted to play baseball and get after people. It was a true testament to their character and willingness to keep going.”
The turf field was completed this past week. Grinder said the new surface and changing of the field dimensions will pay dividends.
“It is a fantastic field,” Grinder said. “I am a guy that like practicing no matter what. We are the ones that are being dragged off the field as the storms are moving in. When it rains, as soon as it stops raining, we will be back out there.
“It helps our player development. We scooted forward home plate 10 feet because the field was a graveyard. You could not hit a ball out of that place. With the plate moving forward, it enhances our foul territory space. It makes it bigger, which allows for more stuff to be done in practice. It adds another whole dynamic for us to be able to improve our player development set up that we already have.”
Grinder said the anticipation of next year’s home opener — the first home game since senior day in 2019 — will be off the charts.
“It will be special for everyone,” he said. “I am excited for our guys to have that opportunity. I know they were missing being at home. In the world of sports, having a home game is just different. You get to sleep in your bed, eat your own food and roll out at a decent time. I can’t wait to be at home next year.”