Baseball fifth-years prepare for one last ride together as they look to go beyond simply another regular season conference title.
As the days get shorter, the wait for the return of baseball season still feels very long. There won’t be any games, or even practices, for months still, but the focus of North Central’s players is already at Opening Day-levels.
Jason Shanner, senior pitcher: “A lot of hard work. Guys still get in groups, we’re still working out with each other in the weight room, pushing each other, still having those conversations and really just trying to work on our craft and get better.”
The Cardinals won their sixth consecutive CCIW regular season title last year, a new record, but were denied a place in the NCAA tournament due to a reduced field and the region’s sole at-large bid being awarded to #1 in the country and independent Wash-U
The Cardinals are using that as motivation, while not losing sight of all the positives of last season.
Ed Mathey, head coach: “Our kids did an outstanding job last year of putting themselves in a position to play those games. There was a lot of protocols in place and a lot of hoops that had to be jumped through and our kids kept doing it, they were motivated. We just felt like we were left out of the dance, you know? But I think our kids are in a good place. I think they’re moving forward with it, they’re using it as motivation as they should. I think they all realize we had a lot of kids on the field that will be returning this year, so they feel like ‘hey we’ve got a chance to go out and do something special again this year.’”
JS: “We’re ready to get after it again…Last year kind of left a bad taste in our mouth..We’re kinda really working hard to not let that happen again.”
Charlie Klemm, senior pitcher: “I think everybody’s coming into this season with a chip on their shoulder and I think I have a little bit extra not having played a full season…It was unfortunate to happen, but I think coming back from this I’ve learned a lot.”
Charlie Klemm was supposed to join teammate Rob Marinec in the MLB Draft League, a summer showcase for top prospects likely to be selected in the next year’s MLB Amateur Draft, while also being a cornerstone of the Cardinals pitching staff. However, an elbow injury and successive Tommy John surgery put all of that on hold, and now in his fifth year at North Central he’s hoping to pick up where he left off.
CK: “I think any time you’re going through an injury is kind of tough, but having a great support system really helps. My family was super supportive when they found out I had to have surgery, and when I called the Draft League they wished me the best and that there would be more opportunities. My coaches were awesome in connecting me with resources to talk to, and then the resources I had, the doctors I talked to, the athletic training staff, they all did a fantastic job of just pointing me in the right direction and keeping me going forward.”
Klemm, Shanner and Marinec are the team’s three fifth-year players, having taken advantage of the option for an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic. They’re well aware of the unique leadership position they’ve stepped into, an expectation they’ll try their best to live up to.
Rob Marinec, grad student catcher: “I think a lot of it is leading through example, and the guys see that you’re busy: you have your own job, you’re doing this stuff and a as long as you’re just coming in and getting your work done all the time and showing who you are on a daily basis and not trying to ‘big league’ all the younger dudes.”
CK: “Now having the few of us who have been around the program for so long….we’ve been in everybody’s shoes and I think we can do a great job relating to and understanding what they’re going through and doing the best that we can to help them and help the program moving forward.”
EM: “They come in prepared and ready to go, and we talk a lot about ‘being where your feet are at.’ So they come in paying attention to what we’re doing in practice or what we’re doing that day. They’re not distracted and I think that’s a huge lesson that goes beyond ‘hey here’s how you hold the ball’ or ‘here’s how you hit the ball’… The young guys watch them, and they realize that just like when they were younger and watched the older guys. So now it’s their turn to show that, and they’re doing a great job with it.”
They didn’t have to be back, and no one thinks anything less of those who didn’t, but there was never doubt for this group that they felt this is where they should still be. Klemm’s injury would have likely kept him on campus an extra year anyway, whereas for Shanner and Marinec there are a combination of academic and emotional pulls.
JS “For me it was a really easy choice, I was going to be here anyway finishing my degree so any time you get to play baseball and go win another championship and try and get those goals and check those boxes, it was a pretty easy choice.”
RM: “I just love the sport and the guys here too. Our culture with our team is really good and it’s hard to stay away from.”
EM: “I think that’s just a tremendous complement to this entire program when those guys elect to come back and want to be a part of something. Having them back with their experience, with what they’ve gone through, they’re gonna bring tremendous perspective on a daily basis to our guys. I think they embrace leadership roles and that’s a huge thing, and they want to take part in what we’re doing and how we’re getting there.”
The Cardinals will be favorites for another regular season title. But they want another shot at the tournament, and for the NCAA run they feel they were denied last time.
RM: “I’m just hoping that we can make a long playoff run and go as far as our team deserves because we’re really good, and every single year we have been but haven’t really shown that in the playoffs at least I feel like with a deep run.”
But for now, these seniors and their coach are just appreciating the experience of one last ride and the excitement of going out with a bang.
EM: “Just everyday being around these guys, watching them grow, interacting with them That’s what makes this place special.”