When Crowder College clinched a berth to the NJCAA World Series in 2017, Travis Lallemand referred to Suplizio Field in Grand Junction, Colorado, as baseball heaven — just minutes after being drenched in ice cold water by his players.
The Roughriders are back in baseball’s promised land four years later, and they certainly don’t mind the 968-mile journey from Neosho.
“Like I said years ago, I would crawl to Grand Junction,” Lallemand said after a scouting meeting with his players on Friday. “This is what you work for in August, and now these kids get to go through it as a reality. Prepping to play, there’s a lot of stress that goes into it like getting travel set up, getting scouting reports done, but when the games start, that’s when you really start to enjoy it.”
Crowder (52-9) earned the No. 1 seed when the brackets and seedings were released by the NJCAA on Monday. The Roughriders face 10-seed Indian Hills (Iowa) at noon Saturday in the first round of the week-long tournament.
Lallemand said his players were in the locker room when they found out they would be the top-seed in Grand Junction.
“The guys were excited,” Lallemand said. “It’s exciting for our program. This is the first year of the seeding (format), so we will forever be the first No. 1 seed in the national tournament. It’s nothing short of special.”
The double-elimination World Series will be capped by a championship round on June 4-5. Other teams in the field of play are 2-seed Walters State (Tennessee), 3-seed San Jacinto (Texas), 4-seed McLennan (Texas), 5-seed Cowley (Kansas), 6-seed Central Arizona, 7-seed Florence Darlington (South Carolina), 8-seed Miami Dade (Florida) and 9-seed Shelton State (Alabama).
“When you are here, I don’t think the seedings matter,” Lallemand said. “A couple of guys asked me if I thought it was a target on our back. I said, ‘No, all 10 teams have a target on their back out here.’ Everybody has done a lot to get here. It comes down to making pitches, making the plays and making the swings. If you do that, you are going to be successful. If you don’t, you may be disappointed in a couple of days.”
Coming off a 9-4 victory over Eastern Oklahoma to clinch the South Central District title last Saturday, Crowder enters the World Series white hot. The Roughriders went 3-0 in district play — topped No. 9 Eastern Oklahoma twice — while outscoring their opponents 29-8.
Indian Hills (43-14) notched consecutive victories of 10-4 and 9-4 over Wabash Valley (Illinois) to claim the Midwest District title.
“They knocked off two really good clubs to get here,” Lallemand said. “They are very solid. They do a lot of things very, very well. They don’t hit for power, but they do not strike out much. They are good two-strike hitters. They are really good defensively and they run the bases. You ‘gotta play a clean game against them. They aren’t a team that will live-and-die on the long ball, but that’s not who they are.
“We have to control the game from the start.”
Crowder ranks eighth in the nation with a .353 batting average, third in runs (625), seventh in hits (619), second in doubles (156), third in home runs (110) and fourth in RBI (556). The Roughriders’ pitching staff has shaped up in postseason play, posting a collective 1.80 ERA since May 7.
Jeffry Mercado and Logan Chambers lead the team with batting averages of .473 and .414, respectively. Josh Patrick tops the power department with 17 home runs, while Landrey Wilkerson paces the squad with 66 runs driven in.
James Hicks has compiled a 11-1 record and 3.43 ERA with 82 strikeouts through 13 starts this season. Lefty Kaleb Hill has posted a 2.88 ERA and is 10-1 in 12 starts, and Dylan Carter owns a 7-1 record in 12 starts.
The winner between Crowder and Indian Hills advances to face McLennan or Florence-Darlington at 7:30 p.m. Monday. The losers of both games play an elimination game at 2 p.m. Sunday.
“They have 18- to 20 year-old kids that are in this situation for the first time,” Lallemand said. “We have prepared for it. Never up, never down. We’ll have an even-keel approach to things from start to finish and hopefully that carries us through this week.
“You never take it for granted. It’s not a situation we are taking lightly. Like we talked about, we are not just here to compete for a World Series … we are here to compete for a national title. Our play will dictate whether we are able to do that or not, but that’s the mindset going in.”