By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Missouri Southern’s 1978 and 1991 baseball teams have a common thread.
Both teams had starting pitchers who signed professional contracts — Barry Jenkins and Ralph Jackson on the 1978 team and Tim Luther, Chuck Pittman and Ken Grundt on the 1991 squad. Grundt went on to pitch in the major leagues for the Boston Red Sox during the 1996 and 1997 seasons, appearing in a total of three games.
The Lions were second in NAIA World Series in 1978 in Warren Turner’s second season as head coach, and they took second in 1991 in the school’s second season in NCAA Division II.
However, the regular season for those two teams had nothing in common.
The Lions barely qualified for the 1978 postseason. They were 15-14 and the No. 4 seed in a four-team District 16 playoff. However, eight of the losses were to NCAA tournament teams — Oklahoma State, Oral Roberts and Southwest Missouri State.
But once postseason started, the Lions became almost unbeatable.
“We got together and said this was our last chance,” third baseman Bob McAfee said. “Everything started clicking. Pitching was good, hitting was timely. It all worked out really well.”
The Lions won their first NAIA District 16 championship by beating top-seeded William Jewell 9-0 and Missouri Western twice, 7-6 and 8-6 in 14 innings. In the finale Red O’Dell, the Lions’ 5-foot-5, 155-pound center fielder, crashed into the Griffons’ 6-1, 190-pound catcher to score the go-ahead run on Greg Curran’s third hit of the game.
The Lions encountered little difficulty in the Area 4 Tournament in Oshkosh, Wis. They beat Winona State 10-0 and Wisconsin-LaCrosse 6-2 on the first day and Winona State 4-0 in the final as Dennis Selbe struck out eight batters and Doug Adams and Roger Dreier cracked two-run home runs.
The Lions stayed in-state for the NAIA World Series at Phil Welch Stadium in St. Joseph, and appropriately, rainy weather stretched the tournament to a full week.
The Lions beat Emporia State 4-0 in the first game as Jenkins fired a one-hitter. The Lions then beat perennial NAIA power Lewis-Clark 6-4 and defending champion David Lipscomb 16-5 as McAfee’s bases-loaded triple headlined a 10-run seventh.
That left the Lions as the only unbeaten team among the final four teams. They met Emporia State again and lost to the Hornets 2-0 as Kevin Mendon — the victim of Jenkins’ one-hitter in the first game — tossed the first no-hitter in NAIA World Series history.
The Lions, however, received the bye to the championship game. Emporia State ousted Lewis-Clark 4-1 before beating the Lions 8-6 in the championship game, ending a 24-16 season.
Jenkins, Mike Allen and Randy Cable were named to the all-tournament team.
“It was an unbelievable run,” Turner said. “Everything went right. It was a great bunch of kids, overachievers.”
The 1991 team had a daily reminder it used as motivation. The Lions went 25-15, lost to Central Missouri 16-6 and 11-2 in the MIAA Tournament and to Jacksonville State 19-5 and Troy State 10-5 in the NCAA regional.
“Coach Turner made us take a picture of the scoreboard after Central Missouri beat us in the title game,” first baseman Rocky Williams said. “We had that in our locker room all year.”
The Lions went 48-13 that season, still the school record for single-season victories. And the season began with losses to Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Oklahoma and a doubleheader to ORU.
Midway through the season the Lions received a strong endorsement from an opposing coach.
“We played Missouri-St. Louis at home on a Friday night in a pretty competitive game (8-5 MSSU victory),” Williams said. “They were a little chirpy, and on Saturday we played them in a doubleheader and beat them pretty bad (18-1 and 15-0). After the games, Coach Brady came in the trailer we had for a locker room and said he thought we could win a national championship. He said we were one of the best teams he’d seen in the MIAA in the years he’s been there. I think that gave us some confidence.”
The Lions won the MIAA South Division championship and marched undefeated through the conference tournament by beating Central Missouri 8-3, Southeast Missouri State 5-3 and Washburn 5-4. They won the regional by beating Central Missouri 17-10 and Regis 7-0 and 9-2.
At the World Series the Lions beat Longwood — and future major leaguer Michael Tucker — 6-3 and No. 1-ranked Florida Southern 5-4 in their first two games. They lost to Longwood 11-8 but then beat the same team 9-6 to move into the final where they lost to Jacksonville State 20-4.
Bob Kneefe, who hit two home runs in the Lions’ first 56 games, slugged three homers during the World Series and was named to the all-tournament team along with outfielder Tony Tichy and designated hitter Mark Baker.
“On that team, we had a lot of good local talent,” Turner said. “David Fisher, Tim and Todd Casper, Chuck Pittman, Mark Baker, Rocky Williams ... we didn’t have a lot of money but we had enough local talent and they stayed home. We went out and picked up Bryan Larson from a junior college in Minnesota.
“Those were two good teams. They played the game the right way.”