GRAND CHUTE, Wis. - At a program with as much of a winning tradition and history of success as Marietta College baseball, it's getting pretty tough to do something no one's ever done before in pinstripes.
Wednesday, the 2012 Pioneers not only became the first Marietta team to repeat as national champions, they did it in near-flawless fashion that commanded respect even from the vanquished.
"We just ran into a team that was very good and played the game as well as you can play it," Wheaton coach Eric Podbelski said.
Photo courtesy of Lehigh Photography
Marietta College righty Mike Mahaffey delivers a pitch to a St. Thomas batter Wesdnesday.
No team had repeated as Division III baseball champion since Glassboro State (N.J.) - now known as Rowan University - in 1978 and 1979. Every NCAA sport - all divisions - has had a repeat champion more recently than Division III baseball had. That is, until Wednesday.
The Etta Express simply never looked like anything but champions. The Pioneers took the longest, hardest routes possible through the regional tournament and then the Division III Baseball Championship. But on Championship Wednesday, it was their day and they made sure of it.
It started with Mike Mahaffey's shutout pitching performance. Then Brian Gasser took over on three days' rest and the Pioneers gave him an early four-run lead that Wheaton never seriously threatened.
"Our pitchers just stepped up huge - especially Mike throwing that four-hit shutout," senior Tim Saunders said. "He set the tone."
That's just what Mahaffey wanted to do. St. Thomas coach Chris Olean paid his compliment, calling him "Mr. Mahaffey." He could have called him Mr. May for the work Mahaffey has done throughout his career in NCAA postseason play.
"I just love pitching under pressure," Mahaffey said. "Give me the ball. I thrive on it."
Mahaffey toyed with a potent St. Thomas lineup that scored 12, 9, and 7 runs in games during the championship. Saunders, the tournament's Most Valuable Player, scored the game's first two runs and Mahaffey and rock-steady defense behind him did the rest.
That set the stage for Gasser. In 2011, Gasser was the d3baseball.com Pitcher of the Year and took the Fox Cities Stadium mound with a chance to clinch the national championship. He wasn't able to do it, but the Pioneers had another chance and beat Chapman (Calif.) to win the title.
This time, the Pioneers had no fallback. Gasser didn't need one. He faced the minimum number of batters through three innings and by the time Wheaton scratched a run off him, the Etta Express was rolling.
"I was definitely seeking redemption," he said.
"I focused as hard as I could and had my command as spot on as it's been all year."
It may have looked easy on Wednesday. But twice coming back through the loser's bracket to win 8-team tournaments to win back-to-back championships? Not even close.
"I don't know how many groups could have done it," Marietta coach Brian Brewer said. "Hitting a baseball - I think everyone here will agree - is the hardest thing to do in sports.
Winning back-to-back championships has to be a close second."