A more veteran Judson University baseball team hopes to parlay the experience gained from last year's NAIA National Championship Opening Round into a better result at Silver Cross Field in Joliet this weekend.
Judson (44-15) qualified for the NAIA Tournament last season for the second time in school history, but the 12-hour bus ride to Hutchinson, Kan. for the Opening Round did not produce the desired result. The Eagles lost their first game to eventual national runner-up Rogers State and were knocked from the double-elimination bracket after 3 contests.
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Those Eagles were more like Eaglets; Judson was the youngest team in its bracket with five freshmen manning key positions.
"It was a little overwhelming last year, but it was good to get our feet wet and know how the tournament works," said senior second baseman Brian Brauer, a Streamwood graduate. "We hadn't played that level of competition earlier in the season."
To better prepare the Eagles for the talent level they'll face in Joliet -- one of nine venues nationwide to win a bid to host a five-team Opening Round bracket beginning today -- coach Rich Benjamin upped the ante on schedule difficulty. In fact, Judson has played and beaten their first scheduled opponent from Tennessee, No. 2 Cumberland (39-17-1). Judson and Cumberland meet at 2 p.m.
The Opening Round field also includes No. 1 York, Nebraska (41-10), No. 4 Mayville State, ND (34-6-1) and No. 5 Trinity Christian (25-22).
"We're still young with five underclassmen in the everyday lineup, but I think the experience of getting to the national tournament last year is going to help tremendously," Benjamin said. "This team is relaxed. A lot of them have been there before. They've been playing well, very comfortably and very focused against good competition. They're pretty loose right now, just buying into the process of their everyday routines and getting them in each day."
The Eagles are led by senior veterans like Brauer (.306, 6 HR, 32 RBI), Jacobs graduate Johnny Amann (.279, 4 HR, 34 RBI) and Flossmoor's Nick Norris (.355, 38 steals, 23 RBI), each of whom have played four seasons at Judson.
The team's top offensive threat is sophomore Cameron Balough (.376), whose 76 RBI lead the NAIA. The San Diego-area native's slugging percentage is .554, thanks to 19 doubles, 2 triples and 5 home runs.
Other sophomore contributors include St. Charles East product Tony Rallo (.330, 16 doubles, 57 RBI) and closer Jordan Pemble from Romeoville. Pemble, who already owns Judson's career saves record with 17 in his first two college seasons, is confident this team is better prepared than it was a year ago.
"I think we have a better idea of what to expect talent-wise from the other teams and of what we need to do to be successful," he said. "Last year I feel like we just sort of got our legs under us. We were really young. We looked at the rosters and we were the only team with freshmen playing. This year everybody on the team is more mature and everybody has been there. And we've played some good teams this year."
Judson's starting pitching has been strong, particularly since April began. The staff is led by Huntley graduate Craig Lipp (8-2, 53 K, 27 BB, 2.47 ERA, 69.1 IP), Glenbard North alum Andrew Bergmann (6-0, 59 K, 17 BB, 2.54 ERA, 71 IP) and Prairie Ridge graduate T.J. Swank (8-1, 50 K, 20 BB, 2.61 ERA, 69 IP).
Benjamin has strengthened the back end of the pitching staff for the playoff run by moving his fourth and fifth starters -- including Westminster Christian graduate Ryan Perez -- to the bullpen. Perez owns a 6-4 record with a 4.19 ERA in 58 innings over 17 appearances (8 starts). He has struck out a staff-best 73 hitters while walking 32, also a staff high.
The Eagles can flash some leather, too. Judson swept to Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference regular season and tournament titles by fielding at a .974 clip.
Can this team call on its previous tournament experience and its blend of veterans and youth to advance from the Joliet Opening Round bracket to the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho, May 24-31?
"The guys obviously want to get to the World Series, just like the other four teams," Benjamin said. "They play relaxed, they play hard and they play the right way, so we'll see."