Lee, Tennessee Wesleyan return to NAIA World Series
LEWISTON, Idaho (WRCB) -- The bus carrying the Lee University baseball team broke down 50 miles shy of the Atlanta airport on Tuesday morning.
That's about par for the course when it comes to the Flames' annual journey to the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho.
"One year it definitely took a year off my life," said Lee senior infielder Max Harvell, who is making his fifth trip to Lewiston. "We had some flight trouble and got caught in the Denver airport. We ended up spending the night there, just sleeping on the floor and in chairs."
Indeed Lewis-Clark State College's Harris Field has the potential to be a field of dreams for both the Flames (54-9-1) and local rival Tennessee Wesleyan (48-11).
There's just no easy way to get there.
"You're always asking, 'Are we there yet?' when it comes to this trip," Tennessee Wesleyan senior Stephen Branca said of the Atlanta-to-Denver-to-Spokane flights that are then followed by a two-hour bus ride. "It's a long flight, a long drive, and it takes a lot out of you.
"But it's definitely worth it."
Two years removed from their first-ever World Series appearance, the Bulldogs have built up quite a pedigree in Athens.
They cruised through last weekend's NAIA Opening Round Tournament in Kingsport, Tenn., outscoring opponents 28-9 in a trio of wins to clinch their third straight trip to Idaho.
"We're on the rise is what it says," said Branca. "We broke the school record for wins this year. We've been to Idaho three years in a row now.
"We're just going to keep winning games, keep winning games and go back to Idaho until we keep winning it."
That's easier said than done considering Lewiston is the one place TWC has yet to win. The Bulldogs were swept out of the ten-team tournament in each of the past two years with back-to-back losses.
"I want to get through the first one and get the monkey off my back and throw it in the trash can and just go from there," said TWC coach Billey Brewer. "We've been there twice in a row, and we are 0-4. But there's a lot that goes into winning out there.
"We just need to buckle down and stay focused when we get there, not worry about all those other things going on and just play some baseball."
Lee understands exactly what it takes to win out west, having made the trek in each of the past five seasons.
However, this year's road proved a little tougher than usual with five walk-off wins, including one to stave off elimination in last week's NAIA Opening Round Tournament at Olympic Field.
"The good thing is we've been in those situations throughout the year, and we're prepared to fight to the last out," said Lee senior pitcher James Rechenbach. "It gives us confidence that we can perform on the back end if we're under pressure."
After two runner-up and two third-place finishes in the last four years, this year's battle-tested bunch believes that confidence could be the key to winning the program's first-ever national title.
"I've seen being very close a lot of times, and anything less than first it is the same feeling every time," said Harvell. "I feel like this year's team might actually go out and finish it off."
Fourth-seeded Tennessee Wesleyan will open Friday against No. 5 Embry-Riddle at 6 p.m. ET. The Bulldogs lost the only previous matchup between the two teams, 5-2, in the first week of the season back in January.
Second-seeded Lee will wait until Saturday to play its first game. The Flames will face the winner of the tournament's first game between No. 7 Point Park and No. 10 College of Idaho at 6 p.m. ET on Saturday.
The Bulldogs and Flames wouldn't meet until the winner's bracket final if they each make it that far.