Vikings set to battle in Midwest Conference Tournament

Lawrence is set to begin Midwest Conference Tournament play Friday at Monmouth.
Lawrence is set to begin Midwest Conference Tournament play Friday at Monmouth.

APPLETON, Wis. -- It's one thing to come through in the clutch once. It's another thing completely to do it four times in a row.

The Lawrence Univeristy baseball team did just that last weekend by reeling off four consecutive tight wins, including three by one run, over Beloit College and earning a berth in the Midwest Conference Tournament. The victories also exorcised some demons of more than two decades of close calls and near-misses for a bevy of Lawrence baseball squads.

"First and foremost, i was very very proud of the guys, especially the seniors," Lawrence coach Jason Anderson said. "Given the adversity they've had and all the injuries we've had recently, to put it all together was a testament to their perseverance."

Lawrence opens the double-elimination tournament Friday at 11 a.m. at South Division champion Monmouth College. North Division champion St. Norbert College plays Grinnell College in nearby Galesburg in Friday's other opening game. The tournament, originally scheduled to be played at St. Norbert, was shifted to Illinois due to the forecast of rain and cold in the Fox Valley. A champion will be crowned Saturday, and that team receives a berth in the NCAA Division III Tournament.

"It's very, very special," Anderson said of making the tournament. "Over the course of the last four years, we were finally able to do what we expected. One year we would hit well but not pitch well or we would pitch well and not hit well. ... This (past weekend against Beloit was) the first opportunity since the first weekend of the season where we've had everyone healthy and playing in the spots we want them in. It seemed like lightning in a bottle, but this is something this group has been working at for four years."

Lawrence needed to beat Beloit at least three times and then get some help from St. Norbert in its series with Ripon College. Lawrence's four wins, coupled with St. Norbert beating Ripon twice, secured the first tournament berth for the Vikings since 1990.

"Everything we have worked for is paying off," senior catcher Travis Weber said. "I still can't believe that we won each game the way that we did this weekend. It still doesn't feel real."

Three-time All-Midwest Conference first baseman and senior Matthew Holliday was a key player in all four wins and noted that every team member played a part in the victories.

"Just knowing that we still had chance in the last weekend of the season I think is what motivated us," Holliday said. "We didn't have one guy do everything. Everyone did their part to make sure we won those games, and that's all you can ask for."

The two keys to Lawrence's sweep of Beloit was quality pitching and clutch hitting. Lawrence got great starting efforts from Chris Shaw, Kyle Duex, Brad Olson and Nick Guzzo, and Holliday and Mike Brady were critical factors in relief. Both Holliday and Brady picked up a win and save last weekend.

"We're definitely playing good ball right now," said Duex, a senior who was named the MWC Pitcher of the Week after fanning a career-best 11 in his game against Beloit. "The pitching and defense this past weekend were great, and we were able to find enough timely hits to win ourselves four games. But honestly I think we have another notch that we can get to this weekend and moving forward. We have the best hitting team in the conference, and if we can get all of those guys clicking simultaneously, we can beat anybody."

Lawrence is hitting .304 as a team with Holliday leading the way at .358 with 38 runs batted in in 34 games. Weber is at .338 with 25 RBI, and sophomore Patrick McDonnell is enjoying a breakout season with a .306 average, a team-high four homers and 31 RBI.

Shaw could get the starting nod in game one, and he has been outstanding against MWC opponents with a 1.98 earned run average in five starts. Conference opponents are hitting just .204 against him. Duex has a team-high five wins this season, and he has struck out a team-best 49 batters.

"We are as good of a hitting team as anyone in the conference, and our pitchers are all clicking right now," Duex said. "We're going to go into every game this weekend expecting to win."

Lawrence is looking for its first conference title since 1980, and very few would peg the Vikings as favorites this weekend. Having come through in the clutch last weekend should put the Vikings in a good frame of mind entering the MWC Tournament.

"If you do it one time, that breeds success. You have more confidence in those situations," Anderson said. "We have more confidence that we can come through in a close game."

While one series usually doesn't make or break a season, last weekend's successes have lifted this group of Vikings to new heights.

"I think we've got the momentum going for this weekend," Holliday said. "My expectations are that we'll go out this weekend, leave everything on the diamond and hopefully bring a conference title to Lawrence."