CONCORDIA, Kansas — On an overcast afternoon in Concordia, the Cloud County Community College baseball team made good on a goal it has steadily built toward the last three seasons under head coach, Eric Gilliland.
The T-Birds' 14-4 victory over Allen County Community College on Saturday in Game Two of their Region VI/Central District Playoff matchup clinched the best-of-three series for Cloud County, which won 9-7 in Game One on Friday. It was also the culmination of years of hard work for a program that won nine games in 2015-16 and will now make its first ever trip to the second round in Wichita.
"We're absolutely ecstatic about the chance to go to Wichita and continue to play. This is the fun time of year," said Gilliland, whose team will play at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Eck Stadium against Cowley College. "I'm so happy for the players and my tremendous assistant coaches. And I'm happy for our alumni, some of them who were in the stands (Saturday), who helped us build this thing. It's been a special day and one we'll remember for a long time."
Cloud County came close to the coveted Wichita trip in each of the last two seasons, forcing a Game Three in the 2016-17 first round against Neosho County and again in 2017-18 against Johnson County. Before the bus ever left Overland Park back on May 6, 2018, players were already making promises that the T-Birds would break through in 2019.
Saturday's advancement comes in the first playoff series hosted in Concordia since Cloud County became a member of the KJCCC. It also marks the farthest a Cloud County team has advanced in a postseason since the 2003 team went 3-2 in the KJCCC West sub-regional, one win away from appearing in the Region VI Regional final four. A fact not lost on Gilliland, a Concordia native and former two-way player for the T-Birds (2006-07).
"I never got to play a postseason game here as a player," Gilliland said. "I grew up on this field, which is a crazy thing to think about, so getting to do this on this field is very special. Billy Bechard, another Concordia kid, threw the water cooler on me. He's played on this field his whole life too. It's a special moment we'll reflect on. But as I've said all year, we've got work to do still."
Cloud County (33-22 overall) earned the right to play another game thanks to a dominating team performance Saturday, starting on the bump with sophomore left-hander Jackson Dietel.
Dietel (7-2 overall) brushed off a pair of unearned runs against him in the top of the first inning to go seven strong, limiting the Red Devils (31-21 overall) to three runs, one earned, with five strikeouts and just one walk on 94 pitches.
"I thought he was vintage Dietel," Gilliland said. "He's one of the best competitors I've ever coached and there was nobody else we wanted out there to send us to the next round. In my experience, in this type of situation, you play to win the game right in front of you and worry about the next game when you get there. We lined up our best guys to pitch Game One and Game Two and we got to save (Josh) Laukkanen too."
As they did in Game One, the Cloud County offense was able to overcome an early deficit as the T-Birds plated five runs in the third inning to take a 5-2 lead.
"Allen County's pitcher (Benjamin Beutel) was really good, but we were able to eventually knock him out of his rhythm," Gilliland said. "We didn't really hit him hard, but we got him out of rhythm a little bit, were able to score and get some timely hits at the right time."
Sophomore outfielder Grant Schmidt helped spark the rally, battling back from a 1-2 count to earn a two-out, bases-loaded RBI walk to get Cloud County on the scoreboard.
Freshman catcher Griffin Larsen capped the inning with a two-hopper to third that was mishandled and rolled into the outfield that scored two runs; one of five errors committed by Allen County in Game Two.
Larsen then provided the exclamation point in the fifth inning, launching his seventh home run of the season to deep center. The three-run shot scored made it an 8-2 advantage heading to the sixth.
The freshman backstop would also add a two-run single in the eighth inning, making him 2-for-5 with two runs scored and a career-high five runs driven in on the afternoon.
"He's just been missing balls, but he got on time with a couple of them (Saturday)," said Gilliland of Larsen. "He's another bat in our lineup that can do those things and we'd like to have him going here down the stretch."
Cloud County capped off the scoring with a RBI single from freshman outfielder Alex Rice that was misplayed in the outfield, allowing Larsen to cross the plate with the T-Birds' 14th run, ending the game via the 10-run rule.
Freshman shortstop Connor Laux joined Larsen with a multi-hit game as he went 2-for-4, while Dietel, freshman center fielder Clayton Loranger, and redshirt freshman Ramon Vingochea also all recorded a hit in the victory.
Cloud County will now turn its attention toward its second-round matchup against Cowley College, which won its series (2-1) against Pratt Community College, at 1 p.m. Wednesday at Eck Stadium in Wichita.
The tournament switches to single, nine-inning games and double-elimination moving forward for the eight remaining teams, with the winner advancing to the NJCAA World Series, held May 25-31 in Grand Junction, Colorado.
"It's one game at a time. I've been fortunate to go to Wichita a couple times as an assistant at Garden City and, I tell you what, it's an experience of a lifetime," Gilliland said. "It'll be an experience for these guys they'll never forget. We're just going to keep playing, have fun and go one pitch, one game at a time to see if we can make a run."