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Bill Neale could not stop smiling.
One day after his Kansas Wesleyan baseball team won the Kansas Conference championship with a 9-4 victory over Saint Mary – the Coyotes’ first KCAC title in 12 years – Neale took a moment to reflect on what had transpired over the weekend in Leavenworth and the 2023 season in general.
Monday afternoon vertical purple and gold crepe streamers covered the entrance to his office. He had been inundated all day with congratulatory text messages, emails, phone calls and in-person visits from well-wishers. Neale was announced as the KCAC Baseball Coach of the Year on Tuesday for leading the team to the KCAC Championship
The endless hours of recruiting, practices, scrimmages, games over the past nine years had finally paid dividends and Neale was going to enjoy the moment, if only for a moment.
Next up: the KCAC Tournament in Great Bend beginning with a 7 p.m. game Wednesday against either Oklahoma Wesleyan or Ottawa. Win or lose this week a second consecutive trip to the NAIA Opening Round follows – the prize for winning the conference title.
“It’s been a good 24 hours,” Neale said, with a smile.
The Coyotes claimed the championship with a three-game sweep of Saint Mary on Saturday and Sunday, topping runner-up McPherson by one game in the final standings – a bit of salve after the Bulldogs swept them during a three-game series in mid-March. They ended the regular season with a 39-11 record, 27-6 in the KCAC.
KWU is the defending tournament champions after rising like the Phoenix last season. Seeded sixth the Coyotes lost their first game but qualified for the national tournament by winning five in a row that included a two-game sweep of third-seeded Tabor in the championship.
It also was the kickoff for this season.
“We had to sweep a nationally ranked team (Tabor) and we went out and did that and took care of business,” Neale said. “Winning took us to the next step which is the Opening Round and going 1-2 there gave us that hunger to come back this year. We felt the energy that’s at the Opening Round and our guys are hungry to do that again.”
There was work to do during the offseason, though. The 2023 roster featured several talented and experienced seniors but there were some holes, particularly on the mound and behind the plate.
“We knew what we needed and even our players knew what we needed to add on the mound,” Neale said. “We got Nathan Righi, Jarrett Brannen (JR/Bakersfield, Calif.) and Ritter Steinmann (SO/Oroville, Calif.) and offensively we got Zack Beatty and Kendall Foster (SR/Prosper, Texs) and three quality catchers in Diego Solis (SO/El Paso, Texas), Jackson Newman and KO (Kansuke Okada (SR/Osaka, Japan)). We added exactly what we needed and it’s working out.”
Indeed. Brannen leads the NAIA in victories with 13 (13-0) while Righi’s 9-2. Steinmann’s been a workhorse out the bullpen with a whopping 27 appearances in 50 games. Jake Westbrook and Spencer Foley (SR/Lancaster, Calif.) also start and the mid-season return of Tyler Triano (SR/Hollister, Calif.) (5-0) after missing most of last season with an injury provided a boost.
And, of course, there’s the bullpen.
“We’ve got the three-headed monster in the back with Ritter, KT (Gearlds) and (Ryan) Sandoval,” Neale said. “We get to the sixth or seventh (innings) and we’re tough. If we can hand the ball off to KT and Sandy it’s pretty much game over.
“Our pitching staff has done an unbelievable job. Coach Huff (Tyler Huffstickler) is one of the best at this level.”
While the pitching has been superb the offense has been lights out. KWU averages just over 10 runs, ranks second in home runs in the NAIA with 122 and has a .335 team batting average.
Jarrett Gable (SR/Colleyville, Texas), the KCAC Player of the Year, has 22 homers, shattering the school record of 18, and ranks fourth nationally with 78 RBI. Kendall Foster has 21 homers, Beatty has 19 and Haydn Brown (SR/Gardnerville, Nev.), who was named NAIA Player of the Week on Tuesday, 18. Dusty Sipe isn’t far back with 14.
“We’ve hit the cover off the baseball,” Neale said. “Our offense every day seems to amaze me. We went to Saint Mary and at batting practice the ball’s not really traveling, it’s one of the biggest parks we play in and before you know it we’ve hit nine home runs in a series with the wind blowing in.
“It’s someone different all the time, it’s just incredible what they do one through nine.”
The Coyotes are more than a bunch of big, beefy boppers. They’ve also stolen 105 bases led by Will Dryburgh’s school-best 35 and Kevin Esquilin-Cruz (SR/Trujilo Alto, Puerto Rico) with 22.
“Everyone thinks we just hit home runs but one thing we do really well is run the bases,” Neale said.
Winning the championship has been a couple of years in the making. After playing their first games in the newly renovated Dean Evans Stadium in 2021 Neale said the Coyotes should win on a consistent basis.
“The support that we have here is a second to none at this level, it’s kind of a (Division)-I feel of support if you want to put it that way,” he said. “From scholarships to the quality education these kids get and the experience that they can have at Kansas Wesleyan to our facilities with Dean Evans and The Yard and (Salina) Fieldhouse and obviously the city the support of the city Salina we have everything we need.”
Neale said he’s in no way taking his first conference title for granted.
“The ultimate goal is winning the KCAC regular season and that’s a huge accomplishment,” he said. “I can’t understate what that means or how hard that is. We just had our all-conference meeting and talking about how great our conferences and how challenging it is.
“I plan on a win a lot more but it’s going to be hard to do that so I’m going to enjoy this, the players are going to enjoy it.”
That said, Neale and his team are planning to play several more games this season.
“Obviously we still have work to do,” he said. “After the game (Sunday) I didn’t have to say anything. They had fun with it. They won and went out and dogpiled and then we went to our (team) circle to talk. They were almost like ‘okay we’ve enjoyed this moment, now it’s let’s go win the conference tournament.’
“They want a clean sweep. They want to win the conference tournament, they want to win the Opening Round, they want to win the (NAIA) World Series. We’ve checked one box on the list of four. It’s been a special year, so far.”