NewsMVNU Baseball Team Finishes Special Season at World Series
written by Dave Parsons, Sports Information Director
MOUNT VERNON, Ohio - Featuring an experienced roster led by a stellar senior class, the Mount Vernon Nazarene University baseball team put together an outstanding season as the Cougars won the American Mideast Conference South Division and NAIA Region IX Tournament titles and finished tied for fifth place at the NAIA World Series.
"Reflecting back on our year, one word comes to mind - special,” said MVNU head coach Keith Veale, who notched the 500th victory of his 15-year career with the Cougars on May 6. "This program has had a great tradition over a number of years, but 2004 was special.”
After winning the AMC North Division title and finishing as the NAIA Region IX Tournament runner-up for the fourth straight year in 2003, MVNU returned 15 players from that squad to lead the way in the new year.
The season started slowly for the Cougars, though, as they went 4-4 to start the year and stood at 10-8 with two games remaining on the team’s annual spring trip to Fort Myers, Florida. However, MVNU won those final two games on the trip and that was the start of a seven-game winning streak as the team won 16 of its next 19 games to improve to 26-10.
"We made a number of changes in personnel and positioning as we started the year,” said Veale. "That was a slow and challenging process. Perhaps we had some doubts early, but we could sense a quiet confidence in spite of our inconsistent performance early. Our Florida schedule was challenging, which looking back proved to be beneficial in the end.”
Upon returning north, the Cougars jumped right into the middle of the AMC South Division race by sweeping a four-game series at Tiffin University. Following that series, MVNU took three of four games at Ohio Dominican University, who was ranked 13th in the NAIA national poll at the time. The team also swept four games from Urbana University and took three of four games from Cedarville University to improve to 26-10 overall and 14-2 in AMC South Division play.
The Cougars then closed out the regular season by going 6-2 against conference opponents to finish 20-4 in the AMC South Division as MVNU claimed its eleventh conference title. As a team, the Cougars batted .359 in conference play with a 3.88 team ERA and four shutouts.
"As we hit the conference schedule, things started to pick up,” said Veale. "The way that our guys committed to the team and to the game itself was special. We rolled through the division winning at least three out of every four games in every divisional series. We showed a special ability to compete well when we were challenged the most. That was a strength for this team.”
MVNU began postseason play by hosting Walsh University in an AMC Tournament best-of-three series. The Cougars swept the series by the scores of 14-1 and 9-2 to earn a berth in the NAIA Region IX Tournament in Canton, Ohio.
At the NAIA Region IX Tournament, MVNU put the frustration of losing in the championship game for four straight years behind them as the Cougars outscored their opponents 46-13 over three games to claim the region title and earn the program’s second berth in the NAIA World Series. After trailing 6-1 in the seventh inning of the tournament opener against the University of Rio Grande, MVNU used a nine-run inning to take a 10-6 lead on the way to an 11-7 victory. Then, the Cougars swept a pair of games from Saint Vincent (Pa.) College 19-1 and 16-5 as the team racked up 46 hits in the two games to advance to the NAIA World Series for the first time since 1997.
Prior to heading to the NAIA World Series, MVNU took part in the 10-team National Christian College Athletic Association National Tournament in Celina, Ohio. After defeating Judson (Ill.) College 8-1 in their first game, the Cougars fell 2-1 to Dallas Baptist (Texas) University, the eventual national champion, and 3-2 to Palm Beach Atlantic (Fla.) University, the eventual national runner-up, to finish tied for fifth place.
"Our postseason run was also special,” said Veale. "We swept our NAIA playoffs in convincing fashion. It was perhaps our best offensive stretch of the season. Even losing two one-run games in the NCCAA National Tournament built our confidence for the NAIA World Series.”
At the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho, the Cougars, who were seeded sixth in the 10-team double elimination event, dropped a hard-fought 2-0 decision to host and 13-time NAIA national champion Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) College in their opening game.
MVNU fought its way back through the loser’s bracket with a 7-0 shutout of Jamestown (N.D.) College and an 11-6 come-from-behind victory over William Penn (Iowa) University. That set up a meeting with top-seeded Oklahoma City University, who came into the game with a lofty 71-6 overall record. Despite several early scoring opportunities, the Cougars saw their season come to an end as MVNU fell 10-2 to finish the year with a 41-19 overall record.
"We obviously had a great finish to our season by getting to the World Series in Lewiston and competing well,” said Veale. "The environment there was just amazing. It is the pinnacle of baseball at this level. We worked hard for an opportunity to be there, and we were certainly blessed and delighted with the experience.”
Individually, the Cougars were led by four four-year seniors, who each posted outstanding seasons. Justin Clarey, a catcher, batted .410 and led the team with eight home runs and 51 RBI as he was named the AMC South Division and NAIA Region IX Player of the Year in addition to becoming the first player in school history in any sport to be named to the NAIA All-American First Team twice. Clarey also threw out 24 of the 44 base runners who tried to steal on him.
For his career, Clarey ranks second in school history in home runs (31), third in RBI (175) and hits (244), fourth in games played (199) and at bats (649), sixth in doubles (42), seventh in batting average (.376), and tenth in triples (8). He is also second with 963 career putouts.
Left-handed pitcher Adam Rowe led MVNU with a 10-3 record on the mound as he was named the AMC South Division and NAIA Region IX Pitcher of the Year in addition to earning NAIA Honorable Mention All-American status. In 101 innings of work, Rowe struck out a career-high 107 batters and posted a 3.39 ERA. He was drafted in the 20th round of the Major League Baseball amateur draft by the Kansas City Royals.
Rowe left his mark on the Cougars’ career pitching records as he finished first in career innings pitched (328 2/3), second in career strikeouts (321), and third in career wins (33).
Second baseman Dan Matheney capped off a solid career by leading the team with a .427 batting average and 88 hits. He also added 10 doubles, 28 RBI, and 41 runs scored as he was named an NAIA Honorable Mention All-American. Matheney also committed just eight errors in 232 fielding chances.
Matheney also left his mark on the MVNU record book as he finished his career ranked third in assists (423), sixth in games played (192), eighth in runs scored (146), and tenth in hits (202) and at bats (580).
Jason Irish, an outfielder/pitcher, also wrapped up his career by batting .396 with a team-high 16 doubles, seven home runs, 48 RBI, and 47 runs scored. On the mound, Irish posted a 7-3 record with a 3.24 ERA as he struck out 63 batters in 77 2/3 innings. He was also named an NAIA Honorable Mention All-American.
"We were fortunate to have four seniors who each had great years, which allowed them to focus on their teammates and provide outstanding leadership to their team,” said Veale. "They were a special group, who have put their stamp on our program. They took us farther than this program has ever gone, and I am thankful for their willingness to sacrifice for a team.”
Junior transfers Chris McKinney and Steve Edwards each played a key role in the success of the Cougars as they each earned a starting spot in their first year at MVNU. McKinney batted .338 and drove in 45 runs as he started 59 games at shortstop and set a new single-season school record for most games played in a year. Edwards finished the year batting .345 with 33 RBI and seven stolen bases as he saw action in 52 games in centerfield. Both players were named to the AMC South Division First Team, and McKinney was named to the NAIA World Series All-Tournament Team.
Sophomore right-handed pitcher Nick Schwartz put together an outstanding season on the mound as he posted a 9-5 record with a team-best 2.51 ERA. He struck out 92 batters in 97 innings, and the Cougars scored a combined total of just two runs in his five losses as he kept MVNU in every game that he pitched. Schwartz was also named to the AMC South Division First Team and the NAIA World Series All-Tournament Team as he tossed a three-hit 7-0 shutout against Jamestown.
Sophomore Kyle Peters finished the year batting .345 with 28 RBI and a team-high 53 runs scored as he played in 58 games primarily at third base. Peters also served as the Cougars’ closer and went 3-0 with four saves and a 3.72 ERA. He was named to the AMC South Division Second Team.
Freshman right-hander Mike Laughlin made quite an impact in his first collegiate season as he posted an 8-2 record with a 3.97 ERA and a team-high three shutouts. In addition to tying the school’s freshman win record with eight, he also struck out 61 batters in 65 2/3 innings and recorded the team’s other win at the NAIA World Series as he defeated William Penn.
Juniors Brent Zimmerman (.308 batting average with 32 runs scored and 10 stolen bases), Carl Langley (.296 with four home runs), Tim Martini (.287 with 28 runs scored), Nate Rutkowski (.282 with 25 runs scored and seven stolen bases), and Ty Dendinger (.239 with 245 putouts at first base) all played key roles for MVNU. Sophomores Andrew Thompson (.265) and Jeff Derr (.212 and one home run at the NAIA World Series) along with freshmen Kyle Irish (.429), Ray McFerren (.317), Ari Yoder (.262), and Zack Helm (.125) also added to the depth on the team.
Junior right-hander Derek Morey (2-3 with a 4.15 ERA) and freshman right-hander Ryan Decker (1-1 with a 5.40 ERA) each started several games on the mound for the Cougars, while Kyle Irish (0-0, 4.50 ERA), Langley (1-0, 6.28 ERA, one save), freshman Bobby Shaw (0-0, 6.75 ERA), and freshman Devin Miller (0-2, 8.59) helped complete the bullpen.
"The other factor that made this team special was the team itself,” said Veale. "After playing in the World Series, I am convinced that the sum of the individual parts was greater than the individual parts themselves. We were a team. We covered each other’s back and we pulled for each other. During the year, you never saw the same guys hanging out together all the time. You would see one group of guys eating lunch together. Then, the next day, they would be with someone different. They chose to get along and they chose to be a team. That was special.”
Despite the loss of the four seniors who each earned NAIA All-American honors, the Cougars will look to their experienced returning players led by eight seniors-to-be to try to get the team back to Lewiston and the NAIA World Series again when the 2005 season rolls around.