It’s not like the Bellarmine University baseball team made T-shirts or shouted it from a megaphone, but it’s no secret the Knights targeted 2017 as a potential breakthrough season in Year 4 under Head Coach Larry Owens.
The realization of those expectations was cemented late Sunday night when the DII NCAA Tournament field was announced on a selection show, and Bellarmine was awarded the fifth seed in the double-elimination Midwest Regional. The Knights (34-19) will open NCAA Tournament play against No. 4 seed Drury (36-18) at 10 a.m. (ET) Thursday at Northwood’s Gerace Stadium in Midland, Michigan.
The trip will mark Bellarmine’s seventh appearance in the NCAA Tournament and first since 2013, when the Knights made a surprise run to the Midwest Region finals. Bellarmine received its first at-large bid into the Big Dance since 2008. This year’s team joins those 2008 and 2013 squads as the program’s only outfits in the 2000s to earn berths in the NCAA Tournament, so the 2017 Knights are in relatively exclusive company.
And that’s precisely where they expected to be.
Griffin Neuer starts in left field, Zac Wiley at designated hitter or in right, Drew Greenwood at shortstop, Alex Ralph at second base and Brady Pfaadt at catcher or designated hitter. Eddie Mathis and Hunter Spencer are the team’s top two starting pitchers. Every member of this group except for Ralph earned All-Great Lakes Valley Conference honors this season – and Ralph almost certainly garnered consideration as he’s batting an eye-catching .350 with 10 doubles and 36 RBIs – and every member was a part of Owens’ first full recruiting class.
Now seasoned juniors – or, in the cases of Wiley and Mathis, redshirt sophomores – and highly lauded they have helped lift Bellarmine from 19 wins in 2014 to within two victories of the program record this season. Wiley leads the team in hitting (.401), slugging percentage (.673) and homers (nine), Greenwood tops the Knights in hits (76) and runs scored (42) while batting .358, Pfaadt is the chart-topper in on-base percentage (.496) and has smacked eight homers with a .337 average, and Neuer has four homers, 10 doubles and 32 RBIs. Mathis is 9-3 with a 2.74 ERA and Spencer is 7-4 with a 3.39 ERA, with the first-team All-GLVC duo combining for 11 complete games.
Strong contributions have come from Knights outside of the cornerstone class. Sophomore third baseman Josh Finerty has collected a team-best 43 RBIs with four homers and 11 doubles. All-GLVC sophomore right fielder/pitcher Alex Phillips is batting .350, senior catcher Christopher Allen is hitting .324 and gunned down over 50 percent (7-12) of would-be base stealers, freshman center fielder Bobby Brokamp has amassed 11 doubles and 33 runs scored, and sophomore first baseman Jacob Pendred has homered three times and committed only two errors in 37 games.
Freshman right-hander Jacob Nagel earned a spot in the starting rotation and is 1-1 with a 3.03 ERA. Phillips is 5-1 in 13 starts on the mound. Senior right-hander Will Birch and junior right-hander Yancey Pritchett are fixtures out of the bullpen with 36 combined appearances, and freshman right-hander Ryan Henson has posted 11 outings in relief.
Bellarmine met Drury in the second round of the GLVC Tournament. The Panthers scored twice in the bottom of the ninth to earn a dramatic 7-6 win after Wiley had walloped a go-ahead two-run homer in the top half. Drury advanced to the conference finals before being edged 4-3 by Quincy.
Drury is headlined by Ryan Colombo, the GLVC Player of the Year. A dual threat, Colombo notched a complete-game win over Saint Joseph’s in the team’s GLVC Tournament opener and is anticipated to start against Bellarmine. He is 9-2 with a 2.60 ERA and is hitting a team-best .380.
All-GLVC member Nic Perkins is batting .363 with seven homers and a team-leading 48 RBIs, KK Daniel is hitting .346 and All-GLVC selection Ryan Kayhill is at .345. Alex Austin is an All-GLVC reliever who is 4-2 with six saves.
The Bellarmine-Drury winner will play at 5 p.m. Friday, while the loser will play at 10 a.m.
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