I began to write this the day after our season ended, but thought I should wait it out and give it some time. I wanted to properly reflect on this year, and give all the details needed to ensure this story is told as well as possible.
After thinking back on the 2016 season, I can say with much certainty that it was my favorite on a diamond. The perseverance our team showed, as well as the incredible group of guys that I took the field with every day, is something I will cherish forever. It was truly an honor to be apart of the last crusade in Susquehanna University history, and by far the most successful.
Let me provide you with a little bit of background before I dive right in. Before the 2014 season, in which I was a freshman, Susquehanna had always struggled on the baseball diamond. Teetering around the .500 mark and sometimes diving well under that in previous years, expectations were not high entering the 2014 season. Defying everyone’s expectations, including our own, we won the Landmark Conference for the first time since its inception in 2007 and advanced to the NCAA regional tournament. We went 2-2 in the competition, beating nationally ranked and even a top-10 team, and finished third out of eight in the Mid-Atlantic Region. We set the program record with 30 wins, including a conference record 15 in a row.
Expectations were sky high entering 2015. We lost only a handful of seniors and were returning all but one starter in the field. Our pitching was solid, and we brought in a lot of great rookies, but unfortunately we couldn’t live up to the expectations that were set. We went a measly 18-17 and failed to advance to our conference tournament. We had a number of internal problems that made their way onto the field, and we just couldn’t figure it out and simply play the game of baseball. In addition to the poor play on the field, buzz was spreading around the University that the nickname/mascot of a Crusader was going to be changed. This name had been with the University for almost 90 years, and this rumor had been spread before, but this time it looked more serious.
2016 offered a bunch of obstacles for us to overcome. For various different reasons, all four of our assistant coaches left. They either went on to pursue either other coaching opportunities, or work-related stuff forced them to not be able to fully devote to the program. Leaving our head coach basically on his own, he had to scramble to assemble a staff. An assistant coach was hired in the middle of fall ball, and a former pitcher who recently graduated volunteered to help out and filled in until a full-time coach was hired in the winter. Our head coach was basically left to handle the varsity squad and JV squad on his own until the assistant coaches were familiar with the flow of practice, which they quickly picked up, and things became more organized. In addition to all the mayhem with baseball, around the end of October came the news that 2016 would be the last year of the Crusader.
A whole panel of people ranging from current students to the board of trustees had concluded that it would be right for the University to abandon this long-standing nickname in light of a bunch of complaints about the history of the name. While Crusaders is best known for being associated with the Middle Ages, Susquehanna was given the nickname by a sportswriter in the 1920s in describing the perseverance of its sports teams. In early April, after receiving hundreds of suggestions, the University decided it would change from the Crusaders to the River Hawks, effective fall of 2016.
For the 2016 season, we had been selected to finish fifth of the eight teams in the preseason poll, where we had finished last year. The top four teams qualify for the tournament in the postseason. In addition to losing our coaching staff, we had graduated some of the guys who had been real leaders to our team over my first two years. Some of the guys who I had looked up to and helped guide not only myself, but also the future of the program in the right direction. After concluding our fall and winter seasons, we were set to head down to Virginia to open up our season at the end of February.
We played our first three games of the year down there, going 1-2 against some really good competition. You have to keep in mind that the last time we had been outside on a diamond was months ago in the fall, before central Pennsylvania became a frozen tundra for almost four months. While we weren’t satisfied with the losing record, we were happy with the way we played. We had our offense rolling and the pitchers were throwing strikes, but we just couldn’t come up with those additional two wins. These games helped prepare us for our Puerto Rico trip, which would be a true test to how our season would go.
Our annual spring tip, which takes place during Spring Break each year, is usually where everything either gets figured out or just falls apart. Normally, this trip indicates what type of team we are going to be for the upcoming season, and how we would react to certain situations and different scenarios. In the previous years, we had gone down to Florida, but this year we were invited to participate in the Roberto Clemente Cup down in Puerto Rico, and you can read all about that here.
We had eight varsity games slated for our trip and managed a four-win, four-loss performance. While that doesn’t sound terrible, some of the losses, as with the first series in Virginia, should have resulted in victories. It had reminded me of how the 2015 season had gone. Not doing enough to win a game and just simply falling short every time. After the Puerto Rico trip, we sat with a record of 5-6, with conference play right around the corner. This is when we started to catch fire.
As soon as conference baseball started, we had an entirely different team. The dismal Puerto Rico trip had lit a fire in everyone, and the entire team wanted to be better. Our lineup just became unstoppable, staying in the top 10 in the nation throughout the year. We had four guys hitting above .400 at any given time, three who in other years would have set the single season RBI record, and contributions from the entire lineup. It was really incredible to watch my friends and teammates go out there and with ease put up seven to ten runs a game easily.
Having confidence in your offense is key for a pitcher. The majority of our staff this year was new to the conference, either by transfer, being freshmen, or in my case, conversion from a position player. Our staff did struggle at first but turned things around significantly when conference baseball came around. We had four or five guys who could start and consistently win us a conference baseball game on the weekend if they had the ball in their hands. When all of those things started to click at the same time, we were dangerous.
In the end, we finished up conference play with a 16-5 record, good enough for first place and home field advantage throughout the playoffs. The way our conference tournament works is that there are four teams, competing in best of three series. One hosts four and two hosts three. Highest seed remaining after weekend one hosts for the championship the following weekend. We took on the four seed, which we had swept in the regular season, and after two hard fought games, we advanced to the championship. We ended up taking on the three seed, which was the only team to win a series against us during the regular season. After a great two-game series, we had won the Landmark Conference championship and swept the postseason.
To be able to win a conference championship at home in front of your friends, family, and classmates was something I will always remember and cherish. I was at a loss for words for about an hour after we had won, with a mix of shock, excitement, and pure joy that was overcoming me all at once. We were a team that was thought not to even be good enough from the start to make the playoffs, yet here we were with the baseball championship trophy. At this point in the year, every other sports team had finished up, and we were officially the last team in Susquehanna University history to be playing with the Crusader nickname.
The day we won the Landmark Conference Championship is a day I will never forget for a number of reasons. First and most obvious, we won a championship; and second was the result of winning that championship. After devouring the 2-for-$25 menu at Applebee’s, we decided to celebrate.
We went to one of the senior’s houses, and shortly after, a mix of the public safety officers and the local town police broke it up. The only people on campus at the time were the baseball team, and all of the seniors staying for senior week who all lived closely in the same complex.
After about 10-15 minutes, everything was broken up and the officers had left. Kids were shouting at each other, the officers, and basically anyone who would listen because they wanted to enjoy this night, their last night before graduation the next day. The situation was over, and everyone basically headed home to prep for graduation, or practice, depending on who you were. We thought nothing had come of these problems, until we received an email from our coach.
We were told to meet him later in the day during the graduation ceremony. We learned from the seniors, who met earlier and attended their ceremony, that is was about last night and some of the events that transpired. We were informed that more than just yelling was involved, and the University would be investigating. Apparently, a staff member was stuck in the head with a can, and an officer was assaulted throughout the night, and the baseball team was at fault because we were identified through our champions t-shirts we had been given at the ceremony, and all wearing at the time. Both of these claims sound harsh, but no one was seriously injured and they were blown out of proportion. The threat of not being allowed to play at regionals was even thrown around. We met with the University president later that night to try and figure out what was going on.
That meeting included a number of high-end people throughout he University, and the basically said they wanted to investigate what happened that night. This was on graduation Sunday, and we were supposed to leave for regionals Tuesday morning. We found out that we were put in the New York Regional, with three of the six teams being ranked in the top 25, including the defending national champions and another top-10 school. So we not only had that to prepare for, but also this nightmare to deal with and figure out.
The next two days were basically just us huddled in the locker room trying to figure out whatever piece of information they wanted, eating chips and leftover pizza. Each hour was something new that they wanted from us, and we did our best to give it to them. Our coach was in meetings the whole time, so it was just us, the team, the last Crusaders. It even went as far as having all of us individually interviewed by lawyers to get our stories. Consequences were to come, as they would still be investigating longer. We had one player suspended as a result of the accusations. In reality, what he was accused of was made out to be a bigger deal than reality, and he should have been out on the field with us. At the end of all this confusion, we were allowed to play in regionals.
Our bus was already five hours past when we were supposed to leave, and we had half an hour to pack and hit the road to upstate New York, a four-hour trip. Our only practice was a makeshift BP session on the field, in which even the pitchers were allowed to hit. We didn’t feel prepared to go out and play in less than 24 hours, especially since our first game was against the number-23 team in the country who had already practiced on the game field, and we were still loading our bus. But as we had proven over and over again, we can over come any obstacle.
So we hit the road, thankful that this whole mess was over with for the time being. We arrived late Tuesday night, and had to prepare for a 6 o’clock game. I’m not going to lie — I was nervous about this game. I didn’t know how we were going to react after the past few days, and was hopefully that we could put up a good fight against a good team. Being the lower seed in the game, we were the road team and hit first against one of the best arms in the country. The top of the first saw everyone in the lineup reaching base safely, and knock out their starter before he recorded an out. When the third out was recorded, we were looking at an 8-0 lead.
Eight runs in the top of the first. Eight. I couldn’t believe it. After overcoming so much this season, we proved that we belonged at this tournament. We were determined to prove to ourselves, to the administration, to the conference, to anyone that doubted us that we were legit. We needed that win. It was huge and provided a huge moral boost to the entire team. We took game one, 11-8, and prepared to take on the number-eight team in the nation the next day.
We dropped game two, 9-2, and had our backs against the wall. The tournament was double elimination, and we needed to win four straight in order to advance to the College World Series. We still had faith because we knew just how good of a team we had, and trusted everyone in any situation. We needed to take two in order for the last crusade to continue, and after taking game one, 7-2, we geared up for a rematch against the eighth-ranked team. Locked in a 1-1 tie in the seventh, our shortstop hit an inside-the-park, two-run home run, which led to an offensive outburst. A four-run seventh and two-run eight propelled us into the regional championship against the defending national champions, and we had to win two in a row to advance.
Just because they were ranked number one didn’t scare us. We had been in tougher situations and had overcome more difficult scenarios. We started our hottest pitcher in game one, and to say he shoved would be an understatement. He took a no-hitter into the eight inning, and we took game one by a score of 8-6, handing them one of their few losses of the season. We were amped. Game one proved that we could do this and that we could win this whole tournament. We were playing with nothing to lose, and they were scared. They are a great ball club and had never really faced that much struggle throughout the season, and they didn’t know how to react to adversity. We had been there before, and were exactly where we wanted to be.
Game two. The most important game any of us had every played in. We needed to continue our hot play, and the dream and last crusade would still be alive. We fell behind early and saw ourselves in an 8-2 deficit after four innings of play. But that didn’t faze us; nothing ever does. We rallied to make it a one-run game entering the ninth, where they would tack on one more and make it a 10-8 game entering the bottom of the ninth. After getting one run back, we fell short and lost, 10-9, with the tying run on base.
We had nothing to be ashamed of. We set a school record with 33 victories, and made it to the regional final. We took down and competed with some of the best teams in the country, and came a run short of making it to the College World Series. No one thought we would make it this far, but we did. We finished with a top-10 offense in the country, two All-Americans, and as we would find out a few weeks after the season, the final ranking of number 15 in the country. Throughout the season, we had not received a single vote for the national rankings, but we finally got the recognition we deserved. I could not be prouder to call myself a Crusader. This team showed the entire nation just what could happen if you believe in yourself, trust your teammates, and just have fun playing the game of baseball.
The last crusade was truly one for the ages, and it was an honor to be a part of it. It was an honor to play alongside the greatest group of guys assembled on a diamond. I will cherish the memories made this year for as long as I live, and I hope that Susquehanna can built up and compete like we did this year in order to compete for years to come. CRUSAAADDEEERRRRSSSS