The UW-Whitewater baseball team could taste it.
The Warhawks were one strike away from earning a trip to the NCAA Division III World Series on Monday afternoon.
But then Adrian (Michigan) College proved once again that sports can provide the most uplifting of experiences and also the most soul crushing.
Unfortunately for the Warhawks, the yellow-clad Bulldogs got to experience the former while the guys in purple were saddled with the latter.
Coach John Vodenlich’s team led Adrian College 7-4 with two outs and nobody on base in the bottom of the ninth inning. The Bulldogs had handed the Warhawks their first loss in the double-elimination tournament 3-2 Sunday morning, but Whitewater appeared ready to celebrate on Prucha Field a day later.
Vodenlich thought his 40-6 Warhawks were going to get their just reward—a trip to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to play in the NCAA Division III World Series.
He had to be smiling inside.
“I know it’s easy for a coach to say it’s about winning and the 40 wins and all that, but it really isn’t,” Vodenlich said early Monday evening. “It’s about the camaraderie, the unity and the hard work that goes into obtaining things like a 40-win season.
“I do believe there are certain characteristics and traits of successful people. I think each of our players showed those traits throughout this year.”
One of Whitewater’s top pitchers, Matt O’Sullivan, had retired the first two Adrian hitters—the second with his 10th strikeout of the game and 125th of the season—to start the ninth inning.
Just one more out and Vodenlich could begin preparing the team for his seventh trip to the World Series and possibly winning his third national championship.
But those personal numbers took a back seat to what Vodenlich wanted the team to experience by going to Cedar Rapids.
“I’ve had the chance to be on some national championship teams and a bunch of trips to the College World Series,” Vodenlich said. “At some point, they’re sort of like your kids. It’s not about you.
“It’s just your desire and hope that they have success. That’s how I felt about this team.”
But the 6-foot-3, 200-pound O’Sullivan, who had no-hit the Bulldogs through the first six innings Monday, could not squeeze one more out from his talented left arm that had thrown 134 pitches to that point.
Adrian’s No. 9 hitter Ty Peck singled to left on a 1-0 pitch. O’Sullivan then got two strikes on lead-off man Thomas Miller, who was 0-for-4 at that point. Miller swung on what could have been the game-ending third pitch—and singled up the middle.
O’Sullivan went to 1-1 on the next hitter, Brady Wood, who doubled to right center to score Peck and Miller and cut the Warhawks’ lead to 7-6.
Vodenlich brought in his second ace, Westin Muir, to get that vital last out. Once again, the Warhawks were a strike away when the count to Adrian’s Gunner Rainey went to 1-2. Rainey singled up the middle.
After another single, Muir finally got that aggravating final out on a strikeout.
The Warhawks’ season ended when they stranded a runner at second with two outs in the top of the 10th, and Adrian’s leadoff hitter, Tristin Richardson, homered on an 0-2 pitch in the bottom of the inning.
For the Warhawks, it was a kick to the gut.
“The tough thing is, when you do everything right, you act right and you have the right attitude and you’re selfless, good things happen,” Vodenlich said. “Today, we’re trying to explain why a team that earns it every day of the year got shorted.”
Vodenlich shared their pain. The loss ended his 18th season as UW-Whitewater coach. He has experienced 617 victories and just 193 losses in that time. The 40 victories this season was the fifth time one of his teams had reached that number.
But knowing what the players went through the past two seasons—last year was snipped after just three games due to the pandemic—Vodenlich knows his team deserved a better fate.
“They earned it every damn day,” Vodenlich said. “I can’t think of a more disciplined team that showed up each and every day, without having to poke and prod them to do their very best.
“It’s like life,” he said. “Life is not always fair. And the game of baseball tends not to be fair once in a while.”
Vodenlich left his team with one final message.
“We can continue to replay this game in our minds,” Vodenlich said. “What I asked our players is to try not to. Not to hold onto this thing, but to hold onto the relationships and the friendships and the good times.”