By Chris Chaney
The University of Cincinnati Clermont College baseball team returned to the summit of the Small College United States Collegiate Athletic Association World Series last week, but the Cougars were unable to repeat as National Champions, falling in the finals to Lindenwood University-Belleville.
Coming off of the second national title in the program’s six year existence last season, expectations were high for the Cougars, especially considering that they were granted the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament.
Head coach Jack Harbison said ahead of the tournament that even with the top seed, his team would have a hard road if they wanted to repeat and his prediction turned out to be correct.
“We won our first game against Victory University from Memphis (4-2), but we didn’t play that well,” the coach said. “Ryan Beard pitched for us and he did well enough for us to win, so that was all that mattered.
“The next game was against Apprentice and we just got outplayed.”
The Cougars had trouble getting runs across the plate, a theme that would turn out to be consistent throughout the majority of the tournament, and Apprentice scored eight runs in fourth and fifth innings to take control of the game.
Clermont dropped into the consolation bracket where they would face Penn State Greater Allegheny in a rematch of last year’s national championship game. A year later, that championship matchup had evolved into a survival test.
“Nick Mason of Anderson pitched for us and pitched great,” Harbison said. “That was really a great game.”
The Cougars won 2-0 to advance to the consolation semifinal — their fourth game in three days and second against Victory University.
“We faced all lefthanders,” Harbison said. “The only righthander we faced before the finals was against Victory the second time, who we beat 19-0.
“We’ve struggled against lefties this year, so that contributed to our hitting woes.”
Adding to the uncomfortable pitching matchups was poor weather. A soggy forecast manifested itself into various delays throughout the tournament and even resulted in a venue change to Lenz Field, which was a synthetic surface.
The domination of Victory in the consolation semifinal pitted the Cougars with their second rematch in as many days, facing Apprentice once again, this time with a championship berth on the line.
“We knew that Apprentice had a really good team this year, but we’ve always beaten Apprentice,” Harbison said. “It’s tough to beat somebody every time that you face them, but we knew we could shut them down with (Everett Osborne). He throws softer and off-speed, and we knew that we could control them. That’s exactly what we did.”
A 4-2 win over Apprentice put Clermont in the first-round of the championship. Coming out of the consolation bracket, the Cougars would have to beat Lindenwood twice to repeat as champions.
“The final game was like quicksand — once one thing went wrong, everything went wrong,” Harbison said. “We showed our immaturity. We play some freshmen in some key spots and we had some freshman mistakes.
“From the first inning, it just went down hill. We dropped a fly ball and it let them score two runs. We were down on ourselves for a couple of minutes and all of the sudden we were down four.
“In the third inning, we tried a pickoff move to first and the ball ended up going into right field. Our right fielder is flying over there to back it up and he goes down; his feet went right out from under him and three runs scored. The flood gates were open at that point.”
The Cougars would eventually lose 15-2, ending their season unceremoniously in the short term, but in impressive fashion once you take a step back.
“In the last five years, we’ve played for the national championship three times,” Harbison said of the big picture. “Our program is definitely on a high note. We have an excellent recruiting class coming in next year. We lose some key players, so that could leave a hole, but I think we have the players on our team to fill those spots.”
The Cougars’ strength of schedule next season continues to improve in terms of opponents’ talent level because fewer and fewer schools want to schedule such a successful program, but that is a problem UC Clermont is happy to have.