By Robert McKinney, Assistant Athletics Director, Communications
SALEM, Ore. -- The Willamette University baseball team reached the Northwest Conference Baseball Tournament in 2017, but fell to Linfield College in the championship game. The loss concluded an outstanding year for the Bearcats, who went 28-14 overall, 18-6 in the NWC. This year, the Bearcats were 9-11 after 20 games, including 5-7 in the conference.
Since then, Willamette is 18-4, including 11 wins in its last 12 games. The Bearcats closed out the NWC regular season schedule by earning a 10-2 record to finish in third place at 15-9. The Bearcats were one of four teams to qualify for the 2018 NWC Baseball Tournament at PLU Field in Tacoma, Washington. By winning four of five games over the weekend, the Bearcats advanced their record to 27-15.
Willamette opened the tournament with a 6-3 win over nearby rival Linfield on Friday, April 20. The Bearcats lost to George Fox University, 4-2, on Saturday, April 21, but ended the day with a 4-2 win over Pacific Lutheran University. On Sunday, April 22, the Bearcats had to defeat George Fox twice to win the double elimination tournament. Willamette succeeded with wins of 11-6 and 5-3 over the Bruins to grab the NWC Tournament Championship. The championship also earned the Bearcats the NWC's automatic bid to the 2018 NCAA Division III Baseball Tournament.
Action begins with regionals set for May 17 through May 21. Willamette is in the West Region of NCAA Division III, so the Bearcats might play at Avista Stadium in Spokane, Washington. It's also possible the Bearcats will be sent out of the region. The eight regional champions will advance to the NCAA Division III World Series from May 25 through May 30 in Appleton, Wisconsin.
"Today was a culmination of this team's hard work and a testament to our resiliency as a group," Eric Del Prado (Sr., 1B, El Segundo, CALoyola HS) said. "Multiple people stepped up today when it was needed, from Kyle Paguio's (Jr., 3B, Stevenson Ranch, CA/West Ranch HS) two RBIs in the first game, to Connor Bailey's (Jr., LF, San Diego, CA/Scripps Ranch HS) home run in the second game, to Matt Steindorf's (Jr., RHP, Granite Bay, CA/Granite Bay HS) phenomenal performance on the mound. It's great to come away with a conference championship."
For Steindorf, who threw all nine innings in Willamette's win over Linfield on Friday and pitched the first six innings of the championship game against George Fox on Sunday, it was worth the effort. Steindorf improved to 10-3 on the season with the pair of victories. He struck out 13 players during the two games, while allowing just six hits, three runs and two walks.
"Everything felt good today," Steindorf said after the Bearcats won the title. "I knew I had to compete to help my team win, and everything went my way."
Steindorf was not alone in providnig big plays for the Bearcats on Sunday. Brendan Natuzzi (So., 3B/P, Napa, CA/Justin-Siena HS) pitched five innings in his first start of the season to earn the win in the first game. Joseph Faudskar (So., OF/P, Phoenix, AZ/Pinnacle HS) earned his third save of the season in the first game and Brandon Murillo (Fr., RHP, Rancho Cucamonga, CA/Los Osos HS) registered his sixth save in the second game.
Bailey powered out a two-run homer in the fourth inning of the championship game for a 5-0 lead, and recorded three runs and three hits on the day. Troy Conway (Sr., 2B, Moorpark, CA/Moorpark HS) scored twice in the title game, while Del Prado drove in two runs. Cameron Igarashi (Sr., RF, Honolulu, HI/Mid-Pacific Institute) was 2 for 4 with an RBI.
Perry Van Eckhardt (Sr., CF, El Cerrito, CA/El Cerrito HS) went 3 for 4 with two doubles, a triple and four RBIs in Willamette's first win on Sunday. Paguio added two runs and two RBIs in that game, while Jack Brett (Sr., C, Aurora, CO/Regis Jesuit HS) provided two hits and two RBIs. Five players scored twice for the Bearcats during the game.
"Today really showed our team's resiliency," Brett said. "We wee able to come together and believe in each other all day. There was no panic all weekend and that's the kind of team we are. Some timely hitting and stellar performances on the mound gave us the edge. I feel like we had control of the game all weekend no matter the score or situation. At the end of the day it feels great to be a champion."