Series is last chance for some, first chance for others

Wednesday, August 3, 2005

The 2005 Nevada Griffons have a new lease on life. Once thought destined to be outside looking in at the National Baseball Congress World Series being played this week in Wichita, Kan., the Griffons were awarded an at-large bid Saturday and will play Thursday morning.

The season that seemed to find new ways to kick the Griffons organization and its followers repeatedly in the groin, has suddenly found fresh legs ... big powerful ones ... with metal cleats on.

This summer hasn't been easy on the Nevada team that finished with a 30-25 regular season record, and ended up fourth in the six-team wooden-bat collegiate baseball league.

How the Griffons got to this point is a story unto itself. The team led by Pittsburg State assistant coaches John Hill III and Brad Stroud has seen enough bad luck in two months to last the next five seasons.

To start, the injury bug has played a huge role.

Broken fingers, busted knees, messed up ankles, sore arms, you name it and the Griffons have likely had it happen to them this season. The team even had one batter hit in the head by pitches twice in the same day, and he actually made it through the summer relatively healthy.

The injuries started the first week of the season and have not let up as the World Series arrives.

First it was catcher Steve Billokur and infielder Trent Thompson. The season started on June 1, but neither made it to June 8 before coming down with injuries.

Thompson fractured a bone in his foot, Billokur strained a groin.

Then the team's most fearsome hitter, first baseman Al Smith, fouled a ball off his foot and missed about a week.

Not long after getting back with the team, Smith's chronically cranky knees started acting up and now his baseball playing future is in doubt.

Then Eli Rumler, a slick fielding third baseman with a cannon for an arm and a penchant for getting on base, was hit in the hand by a pitch. He was lost for the rest of the regular season.

Billokur returned to the team, only to aggravate his groin injury, actually making the situation worse and putting his playing career in jeopardy.

As if that wasn't enough, offensive catalyst and defensive highlight reel Tony Lewis was hurt during the NBC World Series qualifying tournament on July 4. The Griffons lost the tournament championship game (and along with it an automatic bid to the World Series), but also lost their starting second baseman for the summer.

Outfielder Tim Santiago, the first Griffon to hit at least 10 home runs in a season in years (11), was out for the final two weeks of the regular season himself, after also getting hit in the hand by a pitch.

During the final two weeks of the Jayhawk League campaign, the pitching staff started getting hit (apparently the injury bug had nothing left to chew on in the field).

Staff ace Chris Klick, who battled arm problems all season, and now he is no longer available to pitch for the Griffons.

Rubber-armed reliever Nate Rowe also is not with the team anymore, because apparently his arm was not as elastic as first thought. His chronic soreness in his pitching arm has him on the shelf.

Thompson was finally cleared to play the last few games of the regular season, and Rumler will rejoin the team in Wichita, but neither was allowed to fulfill the promise of .350-plus batting averages that they carried when their injuries occurred. The damage this season has already been done.

As if the injuries weren't enough, the Griffons had to deal with defectors as well.

Outfielder Jake Hillgendorf and catcher Craig Cameron left the team because they were unhappy with their playing time. The ironic thing is if they had stuck it out a couple more weeks, the rash of injuries likely would have put both on the diamond on a regular basis.

Then flame-throwing pitcher Austin Hyatt, and late addition Spencer Pennington, a couple of University of Alabama players with loads of potential, both deserted the team right before the NBC qualifying tournament.

Rusty Rayborn, another late addition to make up for injuries, left after two starts because of apparent fatigue.

Catcher Michael Flower left early because of a family emergency, but he should be in Wichita.

Now the Griffons will also lose outfielder Tim Ryan, who is scheduled for corrective eye surgery.

Also not making the trip to Wichita are pitchers Ryan Jones and Brett Brandon, who left for unspecified reasons.

The only players who have stuck through the entire season, despite nicks and bruises of their own, are Brandon Wellborn, Chris Rhoads, Luke Stahl, Bret Harvel, John Christian, Mike Harmelink, Matt Foust, Josh Ruffin, Mickey Nichol, Chris Taylor, Matt Lawson, Hunter Johnson and Bill Disselhoff.

Emergency acquisition Beau Schultz has stuck with the team since he signed on in mid June, Santiago hasn't left despite his injury and is close to 100 percent again, and Thompson stuck with it despite his lengthy inactive stint. Kyle Moore (the player hit in the head twice on July 3) might be added to the list, but the Griffons' brass has been unable to reach him in Alabama to let him know about the World Series berth.

That means only 15 or 16 players (depending on Moore) from the original 25-man roster are still with the team.

All that being said, Hill is ecstatic that the players who have stuck it out in this rough summer, will get to play in the World Series.

"Knowing what these guys, who are left, went through this summer, it was nice to see (the at-large bid)," Hill said. "This is the icing on the cake. We're just going to go out and enjoy it."

Many teams will make late additions to the roster before the World Series, bringing in "ringers" to help in the postseason tournament. The Griffons will not do that, choosing to go with the roster that they ended the season with.

"I'm actually glad we didn't just pick up a bunch of guys," Hill said. "From a player's perspective, I'd be ticked off if I'd gone through this summer and somebody else got to play."

This year's World Series is the last opportunity some guys could get to play in front of a good number of professional scouts. Mickey Nichol is in that boat. A member of the All-Tournament team from last season's World Series, Nichol graduated from Pittsburg State in the spring and is giving it his last go.

"I don't know if I have any chances left," said Nichol, a four-year veteran of the Griffons and of the Series. "But it's a lot better than ending up in Hays, Kan."

Nichol said the younger players, like Lawson, Taylor and Disselhoff, could actually gain more from Series exposure than he could.

"I think it's better for the younger guys than guys like myself. They get to be seen by scouts and watched for the next year," Nichol said.

Nichol said the experience is something the players will always remember.

"It's a lot more fun," he said. "You look up in the stands and if you get the primetime game, there's 6,000 people in the stands. It's big-time baseball."

Hill said his team should be competitive, even if they may not have the most talented team in the field.

"A lot of things these guys have as intangibles, can cover for a lack of talent," Hill said. "These guys have been left out to dry by other players. These guys have been mentally tough, knowing they will have to compete every day."

Hill said the summer has been a character building experience for the players.

"Overcoming adversity, there's a lot of life lessons they can learn from this summer, if they sit back and look at it. Hopefully they can learn from it, then Coach Stroud and I have done our job."

The Griffons play their first game of the double-elimination World Series against Prairie Gravel, Ill., Thursday at 8 a.m.

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