The record-breaking Judson University baseball team intends to make this trip count.
The Eagles boarded a bus Monday at noon for the 12-hour ride from Elgin to Hutchinson, Kan., where they will compete in the opening round of the 2012 NAIA Baseball National Championship Opening Round this Thursday through Sunday.
It marks the first time Judson has qualified for the opening round since the format of the NAIA tournament changed three seasons ago. The Eagles gained one of 29 automatic bids to the 45-team tournament by winning the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAC) regular-season title. They finished 25-4 in CCAC play en route to a school record 46 wins in 58 games.
"It's our first time being in the regional in this format, but whether it's your first time or your fifth time it's always going to be your best against their best," Judson coach Rich Benjamin said. "With that being said, I think the thing with our guys is confidence. Their attitude going in is that they want to win. I think they feel like they're fully capable of doing that with what they've done.
"To be 46-12 and have a lot of late-inning, come-from-behind wins and a bullpen that's really stepped up tremendously throughout the season, they feel like they're prepared for this."
Oklahoma Baptist (46-12) is the No. 1 seed in the five-team Hutchinson regional bracket, followed by No. 2 Judson, Rogers State (Okla.), Tabor (Kan.) and Dakota State (S.D.).
Judson, which finished No. 17 in the NAIA national rankings, opens the tournament Thursday against Rogers State (42-14) at Hobart Detter Field. Oklahoma Baptist finished the season ranked No. 7 in the nation, Rogers State No. 23 and Tabor No. 30.
The winner of the double-elimination regional will join the winners of eight other regionals and Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) at the 56th annual Avista-NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho, May 25-June 1.
"We're going there to do some damage," junior Craig Lipp, who played at Huntley and Elgin Community College, said before boarding the bus. "A lot of guys on this team put in a lot of hard work in the off-season to get better and prepare for something like this. We feel any of our starters can do the job for us, and our bullpen and hitting have been very good."
Judson enters the tournament with a team batting average of .316, led by senior right fielder Matt McHenry (.386, 21 doubles, 9 home runs, 51 RBI). McHenry holds six Judson batting records, including single-season hits (80) and career home runs (20).
"I think this team has what it takes to compete with anyone we face," McHenry said. "Our pitching has been outstanding, and we have strong hitters up and down the lineup. It may sound odd, but we actually do better against harder-throwing pitchers, not soft tossers like we sometimes see in conference. That could work to our advantage."
McHenry is backed by sophomore Billy Wright from Crystal Lake South (.375, 14 doubles, 3 home runs, 45 RBI), freshman Cameron Balough (.361, 10 doubles, 42 RBI), sophomore Josh Raymond (.327, 16 doubles, 5 home runs, 50 RBI), freshman Tony Rallo from St. Charles East (.315, 7 doubles, 4 home runs, 37 RBI) and junior Brian Brauer from Streamwood (.291, 14 doubles, 2 home runs, 29 RBI).
"We have guys hitting in the 7-8-9 spots who a few years ago would have been hitting 3-4-5," Benjamin said. "So we know we have a chance to score every inning. That's a real big strength for us."
The pitching staff is led by senior Tyler Ware (6-1, 3.11 ERA, 63 IP), Lipp (7-1, 2.17, 58), freshman Andrew Bergmann from Glenbard North (5-2, 3.25, 52), junior T.J. Swank from Prairie Ridge (7-2, 3.74, 53), senior Ben Palmer from Westminster Christian (5-0, 4.09, 55), senior George Heller from Burlington Central (5-1, 4.53, 53) and freshman closer Jordan Pemble from Romeoville (8 saves, 2.10, 25).
The main question entering regional play is how the Eagles will adjust to the loss of junior starting catcher Johnny Amann. The Jacobs graduate suffered a torn ACL in the final game of the CCAC Tournament last Friday. He was hitting .320 (54-for-169) with 12 doubles, 2 triples, 7 home runs and 34 RBI. He owned a .460 on-base percentage and led the team in runs scored (59).
"He's going to be a tremendous loss, but it's been a strength of our team all season to be able to overcome injuries at several positions," Benjamin said. "It's really showed the depth of our team. We'll call on our other catchers and other hitters to step up and go play the games."
The Eagles say they are ready for the nail-biting intensity of the NAIA regional. In fact, they crave the opportunity.
"We definitely need to have more experience in the postseason playing against better competition," Swank said. "When we're in those situations when the pressure is on, we need to be at our best because that ultimately makes us better as a club, as an organization. I think we'll be good."