published Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

Wesleyan slugs its way to NAIA national title

Even if their welcome-home party in Athens had to be postponed several hours Saturday night, the shine could not leave the faces of the Tennessee Wesleyan baseball team and coaches -- or their trophies.

The diamond Bulldogs pulled off the first NAIA national championship in the old school's history Friday night in Lewiston, Idaho, rallying from a four-run deficit to defeat Rogers State 10-6 in the championship game of the NAIA World Series.

Led by a home run and five runs batted in from the nation's season RBI king, third baseman Taylor Oldham, a record-breaking seventh homer in the series from right fielder Jordan Guida and strong relief pitching, the fourth-seeded Bulldogs wrapped up a 53-12 season with their 19th win in 20 games.

TWC had been to the 2010 and '11 World Series but went 0-2 each time. It was 5-1 in this one.

Guida, a senior from Glendale, Ariz., who hit five homers all season leading into the World Series, was voted most valuable player after going 11-for-25 with 11 runs scored and a tournament-high 14 batted in. The whole TWC infield joined him on the all-tournament team -- Oldham, shortstop Stephen Branca, second baseman Anthony Boix, first baseman Jake Stone and catcher Dale Ricketts -- along with outfielders Brady Renner and Mike Moore and designated hitter Corey Davis from fourth-place Lee University.

Lee finished in the top four for the fifth year in a row. The second-seeded Cleveland school was the next-to-last team to lose a game in Lewiston, that coming late Tuesday against its next-county neighbor.

After ripping a two-run homer to prevent a shutout in the last inning of Wesleyan's loss to top-seeded LSU Shreveport the next night, Guida homered three times and drove in six runs in a victorious 17-10 rematch.

While Wesleyan went into the World Series with a loaded lineup, coach Billy Berry cited his team's pitching depth and versatility as a legitimate reason to believe in a long tournament run. And that proved true: After top two starters Jeremy Fitzgerald and Josh Culler got the wins in the first two games, Fitzgerald sustained his first loss of the season Wednesday and Culler got only one out Friday -- a sacrifice fly -- as Rogers State went up 3-0 in the opening inning.

But Corey Rhoney (10-0) allowed only five hits in eight innings against potent Lee, which had won both April meetings of the teams, and yielded only two hits in 4 1/3 innings of relief in Friday's final. That was followed by a strong two innings from Corey Collins for the second night in a row.

Oldham, a senior transfer from Covenant College, doubled in two runs in the bottom of the first inning Friday -- and TV replays seemed to indicate that should've been a homer -- but Rogers State scored three again in the third. The ninth-seeded Hillcats (49-16) got only three hits in the last six innings, though, and Guida and Drew Levi began the Bulldogs' sixth with homers and Ricketts walked and pinch-runner Miles Allen eventually scored.

In the eighth, Thomas Sicking singled with one out and Travis Burnside reached base on a wild throw on a bunt. After a force-out, Branca walked and Stone singled in two runs to put TWC ahead, and Oldham made it 10-6 with his no-doubt three-run blast.

The Bulldogs' 17 homers set a Series record, and their .325 team batting average and 11.3 runs per game were tournament highs by big margins.

They had trouble regaining high status Saturday morning, literally, but after a flight cancellation in Spokane, Wash., the Bulldogs contingent finally was on its way home in three groups, the first expected to arrive on campus about midnight. The school had planned a welcoming ceremony for about 7:30 but backed that up.

"Everybody's excited around here," women's basketball coach Jeff Rice said. "No team from here has ever been close to a national championship before. What a great accomplishment for Billy and the guys and for our school."

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