Karl Lindholm: Rainy day game; sunny days ahead for Panther baseball
2017 NESCAC Baseball Champions — Middlebury College!
It had such a nice ring.
When I left the baseball field at Colby College on Saturday, May 14, I was confident the Panthers had won the NESCAC baseball title. That afternoon, Middlebury had defeated Tufts 5-1, after knocking off Bates the day before to be the only undefeated team in the double elimination NESCAC (New England Small College Athletic Conference) tournament.
Under normal conditions, Middlebury would have to play on Sunday the winner of the Saturday evening game between Tufts and Amherst — both teams had one loss.
But the circumstances on Sunday, May 15, were expected to be anything but normal for baseball: the weather forecast was dire — 100 percent chance of rain all day. Not just rain either, a downpour.
Sure enough, when I awoke in Brunswick Sunday morning, it was raining cats and dogs with steel gray sky and no end in sight. No way the games could be played. Hallelujah!
As champs, Middlebury would get the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament and continue their marvelous season.
There was precedent for this scenario: In 2011 Tufts was declared NESCAC Champs when the Sunday championship game, or games, was rained out.
The only other Middlebury team to win the NESCAC tournament was the powerhouse 2006 team, coached by Bob Smith, which won 27 games, including two in the NCAAs. Coach “Smitty” retired last spring after 32 years at the helm.
Alas, it was not to be.
Unfortunately for Middlebury, Colby had opened a new baseball stadium just this year with a 100 percent artificial playing surface. The decision was made to play in the rain: Tufts won the first game 11-2 to tie things up and repeated in the second 10-6 in a steady rain the whole way.
First year Middlebury coach Mike Leonard called the day, “The worst conditions I ever saw for baseball.”
As an all-conference catcher at the University of Connecticut, in his four years of pro ball (in the Red Sox system, playing as high as AA for the Portland Sea Dogs), and in 10 years of coaching, the last six as head coach at NESCAC rival Bates College, Leonard has seen a lot of baseball.
Complaining was useless — it rained on both teams, and Tufts played better.
Middlebury coaches and players were naturally disappointed, but their dismay was short-lived. Leonard quickly gathered the team together and reminded them of all they had achieved in this remarkable season.
“I have never coached players more committed to one another,” he said of his first Middlebury team. “They are a selfless group. The success of the team was always foremost.”
And their success this year was extraordinary, and highly unexpected. Their 22 wins were the second most in program history and more than the last three years combined. They earned the top spot in the NESCAC’s West Division with their 8-4 league record.
The Panthers were just 3-8 on their spring trip to Arizona, losing the last three against NESCAC opponent Williams. Normally, those three Williams losses would doom any chance for postseason play.
Back home, their next games were at Amherst, a perennial power, and they won two of three there — and it was off to the races. They went 6-0 in the league, sweeping Wesleyan for the first time ever and then taking all three games against Hamilton to qualify for the NESCAC Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Coach Leonard and his assistants Mike Phelps and David Vandercook were relentlessly positive. “We set positive goals, regardless of success,” Leonard said. “Even if you don’t win,” he emphasized to his players, “you’re better, stronger; you are more than wins and losses.”
He had inherited a young team — often the starting line-up included six first-year players, with a few veterans who had not experienced great success. “We gave them the opportunity to fail,” he said: “Play hard, have fun, play to win. If you fail … reset, turn the page, move on! Enjoy the game.”
It was not a hard sell. His players were ready for his message. Senior Ryan Rizzo, centerfielder and lead-off hitter (and first-team All-NESCAC), said, “Coach Leonard emphasized having fun. He didn’t get on players for making mistakes, but emphasized making it right your next opportunity” Russo said.
“A lot of coaches focus on the ‘little things,’ but Coach Leonard focused on the things that mattered. Some were little; some were huge. This year was incredible, nothing short of the most fun I’ve ever had on any playing field.”
Jason Lock, first baseman and captain (he also earned All-NESCAC honors with a .354 batting average), was just as effusive as his teammate: “(Coach Leonard’s) vast knowledge of the game shocked me and my teammates, and his impeccable ability to communicate made him all the more effective.
“We were a team that was built not just on great coaching and hard work, but a team built on love. I have never been a part of a team, group, or organization that had the collective ‘heart’ of our squad.”
Coach Leonard inherited a very talented group of young players this year. They were recruited by his assistant, Middlebury native Mike Phelps, who was recognized this spring with the New England Intercollegiate Baseball Association’s (NEIBA) Assistant Coach Award.
“I couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of this award,” said Leonard. “Mike is a tireless worker and a role model for our athletes.”
Middlebury College baseball: A special season and a bright future.
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