Braves make magical run to KCAC Tournament championship
The Ottawa University baseball team hit its stride just at the right time.
The Braves showed flashes of good baseball, but not consistent enough to be a championship team until late in the season.
Ottawa found the right mojo and flipped the switch in the final month of the season, going 13-5, including sweeping its way to the KCAC Tournament championship.
Third-year coach Gabe Grinder said the Tabor series in mid-April was a turning point after taking two of three from the Bluejays.
“They were playing really good baseball,” Grinder said. “We were coming off some really bad losses. That is when the guys realized we could do something here. We started playing really good baseball down the stretch.
“I told these guys all year they could be the best team in the conference. Our guys have risen to the challenge.”
During the later stages of the season, Ottawa came within a whisker of sweeping nationally-ranked Oklahoma Wesleyan and kept winning series after series.
“Down the stretch, we are finally healthy and all pulling in the same direction,” Grinder said. “We were beat up pretty bad this year. For about a month stretch, they fought through injuries and they were on the field trying to compete.
“We are playing our best down the stretch because we finally got into a rhythm. It comes down to having the right guys in place at the right time. We saw it blend together the past month to help us win a bunch of ball games.”
Grinder said all the work since August began to pay off as Ottawa took off to post the most wins in a single season (35).
“Guys just clicked,” Grinder said. “Guys started to shine through and take that role of leading the team. We changed up our pitching a little bit. We are getting a lot more guys involved. We were playing a lot more small ball down the stretch. It brings teams together. It shows guys that everyone plays a part. Everyone is chipping in to win games.
“We have seen guys that were not contributors early, turn it on late. I contribute that to the work they put in throughout the year.”
That championship mentality was something the coaches preached from the first day of practice.
“We started talking championship from day one,” Grinder said. “We threw that Friends series away [at end of the season], which was disappointing. We could have moved up as high as a three seed. It is over with and now [everything] is in front of you what we talked about all year, which is winning a championship.”
Ottawa, the fifth seed, dug down to win all four games in the KCAC Tournament, the first for the Braves since 1994.
“Our pitchers are pounding the strike zone and giving our offense a chance to do their work,” Grinder said. “We faced a lot of great pitching down the stretch. When you face great pitching, it is tough for your offense to score a ton of runs. We relied on the pitchers to keep it close.”
Ottawa stayed true to that philosophy in the tourney opener, falling behind 2-0 to Tabor before pulling out a 4-2 victory.
“We had a really good game plan when we played them,” Grinder said. “Our hitters stuck to it. We could have easily lost that game 2-0.
“It goes back to our preparation. We put guys in those [pressure] situations during practice all the time. We put pressure on them both offensively and on the mound. We rely on that stuff when we get into those games.”
Ottawa’s ace Stephen Norrell finished with 24 strikeouts in the tournament, including 15 in the win over Tabor.
“He has been our horse ever since I got here three years ago,” Grinder said. “He has really developed himself into a pitcher. It has been a two- or three-year process to get him where he is at. We tweaked a few things and he hit the accelerator down the stretch for us. He has been really dominant.”
The line-up was set up around senior slugger Rylan Cratsenberg, who is among the NAIA leaders in home runs and RBIs.
“He is great to have in the middle of the order,” Grinder said. “Anytime you have a guy like that in the middle of the order, it allows guys to play better because you have to worry about pitching to him. We stacked guys around him. Last year, we were not as deep offensively. We went out and got a couple more pieces. We have been able to protect him in the order with guys that hit around him. He got better pitches to hit this year than last year. He capitalized on those this year.”
Ottawa’s next hurdle is winning a regional and advancing to the NAIA World Series.
Ottawa (35-18) is the fifth seed in the New Orleans bracket of the NAIA National Tournament. Ottawa plays Monday against No. 4 Benedictine. The top three seeds are Loyola (Louisiana), Keiser and Oklahoma City.
“You get to play some teams you have not seen before and compete against some of the best in the country,” Grinder said. “That is why we do it. If you don’t want to do that, I don’t know why you play this game. This is a great opportunity for us.”