ODDLY ENOUGH ...Iowa Western has knack for titles in even-numbered years
The joke pops up every other year.
“Well, it’s an even-numbered year, guess Iowa Western’s the favorite.”
Marc Rardin swells with pride.
“That tells you the history and I’m proud of that,” the Iowa Western Community College baseball coach said. “As I’ve gotten older and (knowing) what we’ve built, I’m proud of that. We’ve done so much that’s never been done.
“People joke about it, but to me, because we’ve won it three other times and being ‘that Northern team,’ being from Iowa, they think we play in the cow pasture somewhere. I love those jokes.”
The Reivers (50-13), ranked No. 4 in the final NJCAA Division I poll, have won three Alpine Bank Junior College World Series titles in the past six years, every other year, starting in 2010.
And although Rardin does take pride in those three titles, he does his best to deflect some of the pressure off his players that comes with the program’s success.
To a point.
“There’s a sign, when we recruit kids, they see it in the locker room, ‘With great tradition comes a greater responsibility.’ They’re defending that jersey. In athletics, you can love a jersey or hate a jersey. They can love you or they will want to beat you,” Rardin said.
“In the mindset, we’re the team that needs to get beat if someone different is going to the World Series. Everybody is cheering against us except our players and their parents, and that’s OK.”
Since junior college rosters have so much turnover every year, Rardin tells his freshmen that they had nothing to do with last year’s team, but everything to do with this year’s. It’s one reason his teams have been so consistent, averaging more than 47 wins a year.
And this year’s team had to find its own way. The Reivers are fifth in the nation (second among teams in the tournament) in batting average at .383, 19th in fielding percentage at .962 and its team ERA of 4.25 is good for 34th.
“I think overall we’re just above average in both (hitting and pitching),” Rardin said. “If you’re looking at one of the ‘better’ teams, if you look at the roster, I don’t think it’s great that way, but teams are what wins a championship, not numbers on paper. I think that’s what gives us a chance. I wouldn’t say we have a dominant offense or pitching. If we’re above average in both and maybe not stellar in any of it, you still have a chance.”
One player who has been stellar at the plate is second baseman Jared Gates, who’s hitting .434 with 60 RBI. He’s hit eight home runs, tied with first baseman Matt Hoeg for second on the team behind designated hitter Matt Lloyd.
Gates hits leadoff, moving into that spot when Tyler Cropley was lost for the season with an injury. Through 36 games, Cropley was hitting .403 with five home runs and 27 RBI.
“I’m trying to get him the most ABs possible and when we lost Cropley to a season-ending injury, Gates went from the 3-4 hole right to the top,” Rardin said.
“He’s a really good college baseball player, that’s what he is. That’s been what works for us for a long time, getting those guys who are great kids from great families.”
Jacob Niggemeyer leads the pitching staff with a 10-1 record and a 2.32 ERA. He has a better than 2-1 ratio of strikeouts to walks, but doesn’t have gaudy numbers in either category. He’s a ground ball/fly ball pitcher, with 48 strikeouts in 62 innings.
“He’s been throwing those big games every time the last couple of weeks,” Rardin said. “He’s a guy I’m interested in seeing how it looks in Grand Junction. You’ve got a harder playing surface (the Reivers play on synthetic turf at Doc Ross Field) and bigger gaps.
“Obviously the ball travels and he’s a contact pitcher. He gets swings on the offense and that’s what he needs to do and what he does.”
Rardin talks about teams having the “it” factor, and isn’t sure if this club has found its own “it,” but pointed to one weekend against a good Marshalltown Community College team when the Reivers seemed to turn a corner.
“We traveled up there, it’s a three-hour trip, and we lost both games on Friday. We were horrible,” he said. “Bad at-bats, we’re up 3-nothing and lost 6-3 and lose the other game 5-1 or something like that.”
That’s when Rardin did something he rarely does.
“After the game we clean up the dugout, and I don’t do this a lot, but I told them ‘We’re going to the bus and you guys need to stand here for five or six minutes. You might stare at each other or somebody’s going to have something viable to say. If it’s not coming from a leader or if it’s coming from the right person, you’ll know it.’
“I never asked about it, I don’t know what was said or who said it. But we went back on Monday and won 7-0, 6-0 and continued on our way. I don’t know if that’s the exact moment, but guys needed to take ownership.”