KWU’s World Series appearance the culmination of 10 years of hard work for Neale and Coyote Baseball

It was the summer of 2015. Bill Neale had driven from Oklahoma to Salina for an interview at Kansas Wesleyan which was searching for a head coach for its middling baseball program.

Neale had just finished his first season at Bacon College (Oklahoma) and was intrigued by the KWU position. The trip to Salina did not immediately inspire confidence, though.

Dean Evans Stadium, the Coyotes’ homefield, was sufficient but a separate practice facility was a different matter.

“I remember I almost turned the job down because the practice field grass was four foot high when I saw it,” he said. “The field wasn’t level; it honestly wasn’t safe to practice on at the time.”

Fast forward nearly 10 years.

Neale’s standing at the front of the dugout at a baseball field in Bossier City, Louisiana. Bottom of the ninth inning, runner on second, two outs, KWU clinging to a 2-1 lead against top-seeded and No. 4-ranked Louisiana State-Shreveport in the championship game of theNAIA Opening Round Shreveport bracket.

The LSU-Shreveport batter hits a ground ball toward second baseman Adrian Villalobos.

“I was gripping the top of the railing about as hard as I could,” Neale said. “I kind of slumped down about railing high. Villalobos grabbed it and ran it over (toward first base) which made kind of nervous, but I did notice the runner and kind of stopped running.”

Villalobos flipped the ball to Zack Beatty for the final out and set off a wild championship celebration in the middle of the field.

Next stop: Lewiston, Idaho for KWU’s first trip to the coveted and long-sought NAIA College World Series.

“My first reaction was to hug my coaches,” Neale said. “It was awesome; it was so cool. And watching our guys celebrate together and dogpile … still can’t believe that we did it.”

Neale’s exhausting 10-year quest to reach the NAIA’s biggest stage had come to fruition. To say it was easy, though, would be an understatement. At best.

Progress was slow and at times grinding but the pursuit relentless.

“I think it started with my team year one believing in me to lay the foundation to how we’re going to play the game, type of players we recruit, type of people we’re going to play and how we’re going to go about our business,” Neale said. “I think every year we grew a little bit more.

“And then obviously through the support of the school through facilities and funding and scholarships and stuff. Over the last three years we’ve really taken off, but I still think it’s recruiting the right kids with good families.”

Progress was tangible across the board. Improved scholarships allowed Neale and his staff to recruit better athletes. The city played a major role was well with the arrival of The Yard, a state-of-the art indoor baseball and softball training facility located downtown, and The Salina Fieldhouse with indoor space indoor for pitching, fielding and batting cages.

There was meaningful support from KWU’s administration as well.

“There were several years that we had to find ways to beat teams that were probably more talented and better than us,” Neale said. “But now we have the resources and that starts with the Board of Trustees all the way through President (Matt) Thompson to Ken (Oliver, Executive Vice President for Advancement and University Operations), to Damon (Kraft, Provost), to Bridget (Weiser, Vice President for Student and Community Engagement) to Miguel (Paredes, Director of Athletics) and whoever has helped us with Dean Evans and The Yard, The Fieldhouse …

“And we have the support of Salina. We feel that we have a town behind us.”

Neale also credits Salina Baseball Enterprises which oversaw the renovation of Evans Stadium and made it one of the top baseball facilities in the state.

“(SBE directors) Kenny Hancock and Byron Tomlins, I can’t thank them enough,” he said. “This was their vision and I told them ‘If we get this done, we’re going to have people want to stay here in town and come to Kansas Wesleyan.'”

Neale has special praise for his assistant coaches – Bret RingerTyler Huffstickler and Ethan Wilson, a former KWU pitcher.

“I have an outstanding coaching staff that’s been with me last two years and obviously all the coaches before,” he said. “Just believing in the process of how we’re going to do things and what we call Coyote Baseball.”

The Coyotes (48-10) are the eighth seed and play ninth-seeded Arizona Christian (36-19) at 10:35 a.m. Friday in their inaugural World Series game. The 10-team, double elimination event continues through May 31.

In retrospect Neale points to the 2022 season as the watershed for the program. Having muddled through with a 25-26 record KWU needed to sweep a regular-season ending three-game series against nationally ranked Tabor in Hillsboro to qualify for the Kansas Conference’s postseason tournament.

Against all odds the Coyotes did it but promptly lost to the Bluejays in their first tournament game.

No sweat. They won the next five games defeating Tabor twice in the championship and if-necessary games. It earned them a berth in the Oklahoma City Opening Round where they upended LSU-Alexandria in their first game before bowing out with back-to-back losses.

The 2023 Coyotes won the KCAC regular season title for the first time since 2011 then went 2-2 at the Fayette (Missouri) Opening Round, losing twice to No. 1-ranked Southeastern (Florida), finishing with a 44-15 record.

“The last three years we’ve had teams that have a lot of moxie about them where they just play and don’t worry about other stuff,” Neale said. “They don’t worry about the other team. They just feel like if we play our game we’re probably going to win. When we step on the field, we feel like we’re better than the other team across from us.”

Senior shortstop Jarrett Gable, in his third season as a starter, said success begat success.

“Go back to my first year here,” said Gable, who was the 2023 KCAC Player of the Year and Second Team NAIA All-American and a First Team All-KCAC selection this spring. “We had that knockout season where we pushed farther than any team had before and I think that allowed us to bring in a lot more guys.

“And then we did the same thing last year and we actually went one game further than we did the year before. We lost in the (Opening Round) championship game and we showed that we can hang with the top ranked teams in the country. That obviously allowed us to get more guys.”

Gable says this year’s squad is special.

“This group is really calm, there was never a stressful moment that guys were pressing really hard or stressing themselves,” he said. “If I wasn’t playing good some guy stepped up; if they weren’t playing good I stepped up. Everybody just filled their role.

“Myself, Kendall FosterZack Beatty and Reese (Bishop) are the key guys that are here from last year, played last year and know what it takes to play here and play to the best of our ability. I think the guys that we brought in fell in that spot and I think we upgraded.”

Gable said he won’t forget the celebration that came after the LSU-Shreveport victory.

“That last out was pretty cool,” he said. “I threw my glove 100 feet in the air and as I’m running back into the pile, I watched it land in the middle of it and hit somebody and I jumped on top.”

A post-tournament encounter in Louisiana put the last 10 years in perspective for Neale.

“I was walking out and a bunch of the local fans stopped us and said ‘we’re going to be Coyote fans the rest of the way because we haven’t had many teams come in here that act the way you guys do and play the way you guys do. You guys are true professionals.’ I said ‘thank you very much but we pride ourselves on doing that.’

“Our guys carry themselves the right way, they play the game the right way. I think you’re rewarded when you do that.”

While the Opening Round championship was incredible Neale said the focus now is on Lewiston.

“It’s a business trip,” he said. “We’ve got the rest of the summer to enjoy what we’ve done so far and look back. We’re going out there with one thing in mind and it’s obviously to win game one and win the next games in front of us. We want to be the last team standing and definitely want it for this group.

“Coach Huffstickler says it all the time – ‘we’re here, we might as well go win.'”