The Mount Vernon Nazarene College baseball team continued its winning tradition as the 1999 squad claimed its unprecedented fifth National Christian College Athletic Association national title to close out the season.
The Cougars (40-15) won 30-plus games for the sixth consecutive season and topped the 40-win plateau for the fourth time in the last five years.
The season began with one of the most demanding spring trips in the history of the MVNC baseball program. The Cougars played 16 games over 10 days in Fort Myers, Florida, and returned north with a 10-6 record. The team split its two games with NCAA Division I opponents and defeated St. Thomas (MN) University, ranked #16 in NCAA Division III.
Upon returning to Ohio, MVNC won 10 of its next 11 games with the only loss coming to perennial NCAA Division III power Ohio Wesleyan University. Over the remainder of the regular season, the Cougars went 10-5 to finish with a 29-12 mark heading into the postseason. The team also finished second in the highly-competitive American Mideast Conference with a 15-5 mark.
At the AMC Tournament, MVNC won its first three games to advance to the championship game of the double elimination event, but ended up finishing second to Shawnee State University. Then, the Cougars hosted Geneva College and Malone College in the NCCAA East Region Tournament and cruised to the regional title with three straight victories to advance to the 1999 NCCAA National Tournament at Indiana Wesleyan University.
At the NCCAA National Tournament, top-seeded MVNC fell 5-2 to Oakland City (IN) University in its first game. However, with their backs against the wall and facing elimination, the Cougars roared back with five straight wins to claim the national title.
"Very few teams finish the year by winning their last game," said head coach Keith Veale. "Winning the NCCAA National Championship is something that these guys can be proud of. Finishing with 40 wins is tremendous. I always want teams that are hungry and finish strong at the end. This team did not throw in the towel - they stayed after it until the end."
"This was an interesting year," added Veale, who recorded his 300th career victory during the season. "For a team that finished 25 games over .500, there were some moments of frustration and disappointment. Wins did not come easy and we did not blow opponents away like we have in the past. I think that losing Mike Waddell and Brian Sheets to injuries were significant reasons for our narrow margins of victory at times. Instead of a 10-2 score, we were winning 4-2. Our pitching staff really kept us in the hunt day in and day out."
Good pitching was the mainstay for the Cougars in the 1999 season as the team posted a 2.89 earned run average as a staff with 17 shutouts, 39 complete games, and 392 strikeouts in 389 2/3 innings of work. MVNC pitchers also issued just 125 walks, while opposing hitters only managed a .218 batting average against them.
Junior right-hander Andy Heimbach highlighted the staff by posting a 13-2 record with a 1.54 ERA and a school-record six shutouts. In 93 1/3 innings of work, Heimbach struck out a school-record 141 batters and issued just 16 walks. Heimbach became the career leader in shutouts for all levels of college baseball with 16, and he also tossed the first perfect game in the pitching-rich history of the Cougars.
For his efforts, Heimbach was named the AMC, NCCAA East Region, NAIA Great Lakes Region, and NCCAA National Player of the Year. He topped all of that off by being selected as the 1999 NAIA National Player of the Year, the first MVNC player to ever receive such a high honor.
Junior right-hander Dave Byard posted a 10-1 record with a 1.66 ERA and three shutouts. In 87 innings of work, Byard struck out 92 batters while allowing just 32 walks. He also tossed the second no-hitter of his career.
Byard joined Heimbach on the AMC First Team, the NAIA All-Great Lakes Region Team, and the NCCAA All-American Team. He was also an NAIA Honorable Mention All-American selection.
"Andy and Dave were absolutely dominating this year," said Veale. "They have been referred to as the best one-two pitchers in Ohio by professional scouts. I did not see (NCAA) Division I and other schools' one-two pitchers, but I do believe that those are educated opinions. These two guys are as good as we have ever had at MVNC. They have challenged each other and used that competition to their advantage."
Senior right-handers Jeremiah Armstrong and Matt Triplett rounded out the four-man pitching rotation for the Cougars. Armstrong posted a 7-5 record with a 3.24 ERA and two shutouts, while Triplett was 4-3 with a 3.90 ERA and two shutouts. Armstrong and Triplett recorded 77 and 34 strikeouts respectively to wrap up their four-year careers.
"The seniors sure went out with a bang," Veale said. "Jeremiah and Matt were outstanding in the elimination games at the NCCAA National Tournament. They both gave us great performances and the opportunity to win games."
Outfielder Chris Stanifer and first baseman Chris Iceman also closed out their careers in fine fashion. Stanifer led the team with a .453 batting average as he fell just shy of the MVNC single-season record of .455 set in 1978 by Jeff Newton. He also compiled a school-record 91 hits, 17 doubles, 30 runs batted in, 64 runs scored, and 31 stolen bases as he was named to the AMC First Team and the NCCAA All-American Team.
Iceman posted a .365 batting average in his final season as he added 69 hits, 15 doubles, four home runs, 32 runs scored, and a team-high 50 RBI. He also posted a .986 fielding percentage as he became the team's career leader in putouts with 1,468. Iceman was named to the AMC First Team and tabbed as an NCCAA Honorable Mention All-American.
"The seniors saved some of their best performances for the end," said Veale. "Chris Stanifer and Chris Iceman had super finishes to their careers. They also provided a lot of intangibles that we needed to be successful."
Junior catcher Jeff Lavin also had an outstanding year as he caught all but one of the team's 55 games and posted a .345 batting average with 61 hits and 42 RBI. He was named to the AMC First Team and the NAIA All-Great Lakes Region Team, while receiving Honorable Mention All-American status from both the NAIA and NCCAA.
Sophomore shortstop Scott Crawford batted .389 with 77 hits, 16 doubles, three triples, four home runs, 42 RBI, 55 runs scored, and 24 stolen bases. He was named to the AMC First Team and the NCCAA All-American Team.
Mark Coulter, a freshman pitcher/designated hitter, batted .352 with a team-high five home runs and also posted a 3-3 record on the mound with a 2.89 ERA. He was selected as an NCCAA Honorable Mention All-American.
Sophomores Jeff Wine (.386 batting average), Joel Laslo (.367), and Jason Hall (.316), along with freshmen Matt Alison (.331) and Josh Colley (.300 with 38 runs scored), were also vital cogs in making the MVNC offense click.
With a solid core of returning position players, the Cougars have a nucleus to build around. With the possibility of all four starting pitchers being lost to either graduation or the professional baseball draft, pitching recruits will be at a premium for Veale in the off-season.