The Northwest Nazarene baseball team was foiled for six innings by a pitcher making just his second start of the season and saw its year come to a close with back-to-back strikeouts from an All-American closer.
That combination helped negate a strong day from Nighthawks’ starter Spencer Schwehr, as Northwest Nazarene’s run at the NCAA Division II World Series came to an end Wednesday with a 5-2 loss to Tampa, ending a historic season for the Nighthawks.
“I think it starts with trying to build a culture, trying to get the guys to believe in something and understand what it takes to get to this level,” Northwest Nazarene’s third-year coach Joe Schaefer said about the Nighthawks’ success this season. “These guys have bought in since Day 1. It takes great players. I feel like we’ve done a great job bringing in the right players that fit our program, fit our school and can compete really well.”
The Nighthawks finished what can arguably be called the best season in program history. The Nighthawks won both the GNAC regular season and the best-of-three championship series to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Once there, the magic continued for the Nighthawks, who won three straight elimination games at the West Regional Tournament, including erasing a three-run ninth-inning deficit to beat Western Oregon for the first time before clinching the regional title with a 12-6 win against the Wolves the following day.
That made the Nighthawks the first team in GNAC history to reach the World Series. Northwest Nazarene got its first World Series win Monday, beating Trevecca Nazarene 9-3 in an elimination game. The Nighthawks end the season with a 35-10 record and a new hope for the future of the program.
“I’m super excited to see what we can do next year,” said Schwehr, a sophomore from Borah High. “We’ve got a lot guys coming back, not too many guys who are leaving. I think we’re going to get a whole lot of talent coming in, we’re going to be close, even more close than we have been. I think we’ve got a good shot of making it back here if we play well again.”
Schwehr gave Northwest Nazarene the type of start it was hoping for, as he took the defending national champions into the sixth inning without allowing a run. But he got little support from the Nighthawks' offense.
Tampa starter Nik Constantakos, who made his first start of the season May 29 in the regional tournament, allowed just two hits in six innings. He recorded his first five outs via strikeout, then allowed his only run following a single by Walker Moore. The right fielder misplayed the ball, allowing Alex Salsman to score from first on the error, giving the Nighthawks an early 1-0 lead.
After that, though, Constantakos was perfect, retiring the final 13 batters he faced. He finished with seven strikeouts.
“We had a really hard time squaring it up,” Schaefer said. “I think their guy did a great job, they only had two walks in the game. They did a great job of not putting guys on base for us to create offense and they played great defense in the infield. So when you’ve got a guy just pounding the strike zone and keeping you off balance, that’s tough to hit.”
The score remained 1-0 until the sixth. Schwehr retired the first two batters of the inning via groundout, but was pulled after allowing a double and a walk. Relief pitcher Max Holtzclaw looked to be set to get out of the inning after forcing a ground ball back to the mound. But his throw to first went past the bag, allowing a runner to score.
Tampa took the lead in the seventh with three runs off three doubles. But the Nighthawks still attempted to claw back, setting themselves up for big innings in the eighth and ninth.
With the Nighthawks trailing 4-1, Moore led off the eighth with a triple. The next batter, Ryan Dearing, drove Moore in with a single. But that was all the Nighthawks could scratch across in the inning, as a double play and flyout ended the threat.
The Spartans got the run back in the bottom of the ninth to extend their lead to three, but the Nighthawks got the potential tying run to the plate.
John Gonzalez drew a one-out walk, forcing Tampa to bring in Jordan Leasure, who was selected last week to the first-team All-America team. Leasure allowed a bloop single to Grant Kerry, putting runners at first and second. But he ended the game with two strikeouts, his 58th and 59th, respectively in 36 and 1-3 innings pitched this season.
“These guys were relentless and resilient,” Schaefer said. “They believed up until last pitch, regardless of the circumstance, the score, or anything else. We’ve come from behind plenty of times and got it done and I think that was the feeling in the dugout today.”