‘Special’ senior class guides Owls into NAIA play

Third seed William Woods plays No. 2 Southeastern (Fla.) on Monday in Georgia

William Woods University baseball coach Darren Munns’ assessment of his senior class might sound like hyperbole, but he stands by it.

“I might do this for 50 years and not have a senior class as special as this one,” Munns said Friday afternoon during practice at Owls Field. “I really mean that.”

William Woods’ five four-year players began their college careers with an American Midwest Conference tournament title and a bid to the opening round of the NAIA Tournament as freshmen in 2011.

They’ve equalled that accomplishment in 2014, and will try to improve upon it Monday.

Third-seeded William Woods (39-10) starts postseason play in the Lawrenceville (Ga.) bracket against No. 2 Southeastern (Fla.) University (44-14) at 1:30 p.m in the double-elimination format of the NAIA National Tournament Opening Round.

Sixth-ranked Georgia Gwinnett College is the host and top seed in the bracket and will play the winner between No. 4 seed Westmont (Calif.) College and No. 5 University of St. Francis (Ill) at 5 p.m. Monday.

Munns’ fondness for his quintet of four-year seniors — right fielder Damon Adrian, pitcher Adam Brush, catchers Derek Fletcher and Kyle Switzer, and designated hitter Matt Thomas — certainly began during that milestone 2011 run. The Owls earned an NAIA bid for the first time in school history and recorded two victories before bowing out.

“I was fortunate to get that class all at once and they’ve led us from, literally, the time they stepped on campus,” Munns said. “… Those guys were not only freshmen on the team, but they were instrumental reasons in why we won and they’ve been playing for four years.”

Thomas was the team’s starting designated hitter in 2011, hit in the No. 5 spot and was the starting pitching in the AMC tournament title game. Brush also started a game during the tournament and Fletcher started behind the plate. The experience is something that group has held onto and will use to try and assist teammates who are seeing these heights for the first time.

“It was all new to everybody that year, including the seniors,” said Thomas, a three time all-AMC selection. “Having been there, we feel like, and I feel like, that we have more experience and know what to expect (and) what we have coming up.”

That class knows what it takes to get to the tournament, but is just as familiar with the feeling of falling one victory short.

William Woods bowed in the AMC title games in 2012 and 2013, which sticks with the group just as much as the conference hardware does.

“Especially losing the last two (in 2013) in a double-elimination tournament to a team coming from the loser’s bracket (Benedictine University-Springfield),” Fletcher said. “Nothing leaves a more bitter taste in your mouth than that.”

Fletcher’s senior campaign came to an impromptu end when he broke his right leg and dislocated his ankle during the Owls’ 4-2 AMC loss at Harris-Stowe State University on March 22.

“It’s tough to see one of our leaders lay there, knowing the position he’s in and that his season is over,” Adrian said.

William Woods “rallied and got back to work” after losing Fletcher, according to Munns. The Owls have won 22-of-26 since his injury and enter the national tournament having won five in a row and 12 of their last 13.

“It’s cool; I’ve had just as much fun sitting on the bench and watching them win the conference tournament as I did everything else,” Fletcher said.

The gelling of William Woods’ lineup, the team’s pitching depth and discovering — in Munns’ words — its identity have contributed to the Owls’ recent streak.

“We bunt, we run and play the small game really well, which is really conducive to winning in the postseason,” Munns said. “… If you can manufacture runs and have team speed — we have over 100 stolen bases — it helps you on days that you face a really big arm and you can win that game.”

William Woods is batting .315 as a team and putting up 7.3 runs per game. Junior center fielder Cody Stewart directs the Owls with a .421 average, while Thomas is hitting .386 clip with a team-high 53 runs batted in.

“This is, without a doubt, the fastest team we’ve had in my four years here,” Thomas said. “We’re having a lot of hits that would be routine ground balls that guys are legging out, so there’s always runners on base for our (Nos.) 3-4-5 hitters and they’ve stepped up to push runners across.”

Meanwhile, William Woods’ pitching staff is a deep bunch with a 3.50 ERA and features 10 players who have worked double-digit innings. Senior Dane Smith — a first-team all-AMC selection — sports a 9-1 record, a 3.15 ERA, 61 strikeouts and has four complete games in 12 appearances.

Sophomore John Cavness is 7-2, while senior Bubba Bradshaw is 5-1 with a 2.86 ERA. Junior James Ball — the AMC co-pitcher of the year — is 5-1 with a 1.97 ERA and leads the conference with 12 saves.

Another indication of the staff’s effectiveness, Munns noted, is that it has kept William Woods out of any prolonged rough patches. The Owls haven’t lost more than three in a row at any point this season, something Munns believes a team that he’s led has never done before.

“It’s something to be really proud of and our pitching depth was key because we never got in a spot where we were out of pitching or struggled to pitch,” Munns said. “If you always give yourself a chance on the mound, you’re going to stay out of losing streaks and play consistent baseball.”

Southeastern enter the national tournament for the first time in school history after winning the Sun Conference tournament championship.

The 17th-ranked Fire own a .314 team batting average, led by Hunter Bonner’s .444 mark. Aldo Ferrante hits just .296, but has driven in a team-high 47 runs.

Pitcher Andres Casio leads Southeastern with a 10-1 record and 2.08 ERA. Tyler Murphy is 5-0 with a 0.51 ERA and has posted 17 of the Fire’s 18 saves this season.

Munns believes his senior class and the rest of the team — 29-5 away from home this season — is up to the challenge of playing on the national stage.

“It took us a while to get our team figured out and our roles defined, and I think we’re playing really good baseball right now, which is what you want,” Munns said.

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