The North Central College baseball team’s 2014 campaign came to an unfortunate end last Saturday as they fell to Illinois Wesleyan University 8-3 in the CCIW Championship Game at Swanson Stadium in Moline.
The loss concluded a season that saw the Cardinals post a 27-15 overall record and earn the fourth and final spot in the CCIW tournament with a conference record of 12-9.
Senior outfielder Nick DeWolf was a big contributor to the team’s success, starting 33 games and posting a .325 batting average.
“One of our goals was definitely to play for a conference championship,” recalled DeWolf.
That goal seemed far off in the distance in the early part of their CCIW schedule.
After finishing 8-4 in the non-conference season, the Cardinals hit a stretch in conference play where they lost six of eight games. The team knew something had to change if they were going to have success in the most important part of the season.
“We actually had a team meeting where we all came together and decided to start fresh,” explained DeWolf.
“After that we really turned our season around.”
The turnaround was immediate and significant. After that meeting, North Central went on a six-game winning streak.
The Cardinals went from being at the bottom of the conference standings to being deadlocked for first place with Illinois Wesleyan, Augustana, and North Park. The team decided to keep building off their success.
“We decided to have a meeting every week where we would go through our goals and what we could improve upon,” said DeWolf.
As the meetings kept coming so did the wins. After a 5-4 loss to Wheaton on April 26th, the Cardinals won four more games in a row, extending their total streak to 10 wins in 11 contests.
This streak included their first three-game sweep of Illinois Wesleyan since the Reagan administration.
“After the meeting we were more relaxed,” said DeWolf.
“We were really pressing at the beginning of the season. Afterwards we were more focused on having fun and competing.”
Unfortunately for the Cardinals, they dropped their last two games against what many would consider an inferior Carthage team.
Those two losses were huge for NCC, as they would now have to play regular season champion Augustana on their home field in the first game of the conference tournament.
“The last two games of the Carthage series we really lost focus mainly because we knew we were in the conference tournament,” explained DeWolf.
“After that series we had another team meeting where we just focused on going game-by-game, inning-by-inning.”
After falling to Augustana 6-3 on Friday, May 8, North Central fell to the loser’s bracket, where they would have to win two games to get to the championship series and defeat the winner’s bracket representative twice to win the conference title.
“We obviously hated that feeling [of losing]and we knew we had to come together,” said DeWolf. “We knew that any game from here on out could be our last so we focused just on having fun and playing baseball.”
The rest of the weekend fell into place for the Cardinals, as they defeated North Park 7-3 on Friday afternoon then came right back to knock off host and regular season champion Augustana 8-4 on Friday evening.
This brought the Cardinals into the championship series against the Titans on Saturday.
NCC came into Saturday knowing they had to beat IWU twice to win the championship, but the Titans only had to defeat the Cardinals once to hold the trophy.
The first game was all North Central, as they mercy ruled the Titans 10-0 in seven innings.
Game two was a back and forth battle in the early going.
The Cardinals struck first in the top of the second, but Wesleyan came back with two runs in the bottom half.
The North Central Cardinals got the lead right back with two more runs of their own in the top of the 4th, but again the Titans answered right back, this time with six runs in the bottom half of the inning.
The score never changed after the 4th inning and North Central fell by a score of 8-3.
Even though this was a season that didn’t end in a conference championship or NCAA regional appearance, it was still the first time NCC has made the conference tournament since 2011.
“This is the best group of guys I’ve ever played with,” said DeWolf. “Not even just talent wise but as a group this is the closest I’ve ever been to a team.”