This jersey was worn by Gonzaga standout Marco Gonzales during the 2013 season in which he won the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year Award and was selected in the Major League Baseball Draft by the St. Louis Cardinals with the 19th overall pick. Gonzales made his major league debut in 2014. He now plays for the Seattle Mariners after being traded near the 2017 trade deadline.
Now that the college baseball season officially has reached its end with the crowning of a new national champion, we can look back on the 2021 season with a lot of excitement and relief that, for the most part, the protocols put into place by the NCAA to deal with COVID-19 worked as designed, and that allowed for the occurrence of as normal a season as could be had under the circumstances.
It also means we can take a look back at what made the 2021 season such a special one, not just in how the games were played, but in the players and teams that emerged and what’s next for 2022.
Virtual Night of Champions a success
The end of June also brought the return of the College Baseball Foundation Night of Champions for 2021, where the best of the past and the present were celebrated through the induction of the 2021 Hall of Fame Class and three players and a coach were honored through the quartet of awards presented by the CBF each year.
Headlining the 2021 Hall of Fame class are 1995 National and SEC Player of the Year Todd Helton from Tennessee, one of the top two-way players in college baseball history; and Auburn pitcher Gregg Olson, the first two-time All-American in Tigers history; as well as legendary Stanford head coach Mark Marquess, who spent 41 years with the Cardinal and retired in 2017 as the eighth-winningest coach in NCAA history.
“It’s a great honor because the game now has changed into what the pro game is with a bunch of relievers and you get down to the closer to shorten the game, and being one of the first guys to have done that is a big honor for me,” Olson said during the Night of Champions celebration.
Rounding out the induction class are Clemson outfielder/infielder Rusty Adkins; Florida State and Michigan State coach Danny Litwhiler; Yale 31-game winner Frank Quinn; California State College-San Bernardino and Southern California third baseman Rich Dauer; Terry Kennedy, a catcher for Florida State; coach Frank “Porky” Vieira, who founded the program at Division II University of New Haven and won more than 1,100 games; Lewis University pitcher Tom Brennan; Tim Burzette from University of La Verne; Robert “Bob” Lee, who coached at Southern University; and umpire Dave Yeast.
From the contributor’s section of the ballot is longtime ABCA Executive Director Dave Keilitz, who helped grow the organization into what it is today.
“This is another outstanding class,” said Mike Gustafson, president and CEO of the College Baseball Foundation and the National College Baseball Hall of Fame. “With players from coast to coast and across so many levels of college baseball, this group has a little bit of everything.”
The College Baseball Foundation also recognized the four winners of its yearly awards, including three men who represent some of the best college baseball players in the country.
Taking home the Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year Award was Cal Conley from Texas Tech. Kevin Kopps of Arkansas was named the National Pitcher of the Year, and Nebraska shortstop/right-handed pitcher Spencer Schwellenbach was named the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year. Finally, Georgia Gwinnett College head coach Jeremy Sheetinger earned the Skip Bertman National Coach of the Year Award.
“Just from what I’ve heard from people is Brooks Wallace was an incredible person and, outside of baseball, was just an awesome guy,” said Conley, who played for the same program as the man who the award is named after. “He impacted other guys in a very positive way and that’s something that I strive to be off the field is just a good person who’s known for doing things right."
Bulldogs take home the title
In front of a packed, mostly maroon-clad house at TD Ameritrade Park, the Mississippi State Bulldogs made school history, becoming the first team in school history to win a national championship.
The Bulldogs rallied from a rough first game in the CWS Championship Series against Southeastern Conference rival Vanderbilt to claim the next two games in blowout fashion, crushing the Commodores, 13-2, in Game 2 and cruising to a 9-0 victory in the deciding Game 3.
“It’s awesome,” head coach Chris Lemonis said on the field after the game. “For all those kids, for all the players who played here before us and for all these fans, this is unbelievable. It means everything to all of us, the fans, administration, the players. It’s just a huge night for Mississippi State.”
Along the way, the world got to know players who no doubt will shine at the next level but also etched their names into Mississippi State athletic lore. Now, the college baseball world never will forget the names Rowdey Jordan, Logan Tanner, Tanner Allen, Will Bednar, Landon Sims, Kellum Clark and others.
Fans will remember the Bulldogs' ace Bednar coming off just three days rest after beating Texas in the bracket final to pitch six no-hit innings against Vandy in the decisive third game. They’ll remember Clark, who hit only .237 this season, providing the final blow in sending the Bulldogs to the crown with his three-run home run to turn a 6-0 game into a 9-0 runaway. They’ll remember Sims and the three saves he racked up in the CWS, allowing just one run on four hits in four appearances and striking out 15 in 10 innings.
They also will remember the perseverance of a team that finished second in the SEC West behind Arkansas and came into the NCAA tournament as the No. 7 seed but off an 0-2 showing in the SEC Championships. But, like all coaches hope to do, Lemonis had his squad playing its best baseball when it mattered the most.
“It’s been a long year, and these kids have had their backs against the wall a lot of times,” Lemonis said. “They’re just tough. We’ve got tough kids in our program, and they never gave up and kept playing through to the very end, and we’re the last ones standing.”
The college baseball season didn’t end, however, without some controversy.
After teams had, for the most part, done an outstanding job of keeping players healthy and managing COVID protocols, North Carolina State fell victim to the bug sweeping through the roster — infecting both vaccinated and unvaccinated players — toward the end of the first week of the CWS. What made it worse was that the Wolfpack was 2-0 and in the catbird seat as far as getting to the championship series.
But because of the protocols in place and the number of players who tested positive before their June 25 game against Vanderbilt, the Wolfpack was forced to play with just 13 total players, including four pitchers. Though the N.C. State squad put forth a valiant effort, they could not solve Vanderbilt standout right-hander Jack Leiter, losing 3-1.
Then, in a move widely considered controversial, the NCAA later that night ruled that too many additional N.C. State players had come up positive in further testing. For that reason, the second game between the Wolfpack and Commodores set for June 26 was declared a no-contest, and Vanderbilt advanced to the CWS championship series to face Mississippi State.
“This is a heartbreaking situation, and I’m gutted for everyone involved and for all those that were captivated by the heart and fight of this team,” Wolfpack head coach Elliott Avent said in a statement after the decision was made. “Our medical staff and our players have been incredible this season with all they’ve done to keep us safe and get us ready to play, day in and day out. I love this team and this past month, many people that got to watch them, fell in love with them as well. Although we’re all heartbroken, this team will never be forgotten and will live in the hearts of Wolfpack and baseball fans forever.”
Looking to the fall
While college coaches are again recruiting for the future, the pieces of the puzzle that will shape the immediate future of each club have begun to fall into place with the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft signing deadline on Aug. 1. Coaches now have a good idea of just who will be coming back for 2022 and are filling in the pieces with late signings and welcoming transfers from the portal.
This year, the draft consisted of 20 rounds, half of what the draft has been in the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but much more than the five rounds conducted last year.
Louisville catcher Henry Davis was the first overall pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates, his deal including a $6.5 million signing bonus. Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter then went second to the Texas Rangers, signing for $7.92 million.
Of the 30 first-round picks, 14 came from the college ranks.
Every year, however, there’s one big name who does not sign, and this year that distinction goes to Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker, who was chosen 10th overall by the New York Mets. Rocker has the option to return to Vanderbilt, but also could decide to pitch in an independent pro league next season and make himself eligible for the 2022 draft.
Also returning to school will be hard-slugging Florida outfielder Jud Fabian, who was chosen in the second round by the Boston Red Sox.
Also, some of the top underclassmen in the nation competed for Team USA’s Collegiate National Team. Because of the pandemic, however, the team was unable to compete internationally as it has done in the past. Therefore, the team was split into two squads – Stars and Stripes – and they competed against each other. Team USA wound up its season with a three-game exhibition series against the U.S. Olympic team before the Olympians headed off to Japan for the Summer Games.
(Photo courtesy of Clemson Athletics)
Brad Miller, winner of the 2011 Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year Award, became the first member of the Philadelphia Phillies to hit a game-winning, come-from-behind grand slam in extra innings during a July 29 game against the Washington Nationals.
Miller’s grand slam secured an 11-8 win for the Phillies in the second game of a doubleheader. The slam highlighted a comeback in which the Phillies scored seven runs in the final two innings to rally from a 7-0 deficit.
Miller has played a variety of positions for the Phillies this season, including starting at six different positions. This season is actually Miller’s second stint with the Phillies as he first played for the club in 2019.
During that season, he gained some fame by trying something unconventional to break a losing streak. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Miller first brought a small bamboo plant to his locker prior to a game. After the Phillies won the game, ending a seven-game losing streak. Miller went back to the store the next day and returned to the park with the largest bamboo plant he could find and placed it in the center of the clubhouse in an attempt to keep the good luck going, according to the Inquirer.
“They probably think I’m crazy,” Miller told the publication in 2019. “Baseball happens and it’s crazy. … But anything to take our minds off a little rough stretch definitely helps.”
After a stellar junior season at Clemson, Miller was drafted by the Seattle Mariners with the 62nd overall pick in the 2011 Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. He played three seasons in Seattle before moving on to the Tampa Bay Rays, where he also played for three seasons. He also has spent time with Milwaukee, Cleveland and St. Louis.
(Photos courtesy of Rice Athletics and Ferrum College)
Lance Berkman, first baseman/outfielder, Rice, 1995-97
- Hit .322 with six home runs and a Southwest Conference-leading 26 doubles as a freshman.
- Rice went 43-19 overall in 1995 and finished one game behind Texas Tech in the Southwest Conference, which was good enough to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history
- As a sophomore, led the SWC with 20 home runs and finished fourth in the batting race with a .398 average. The Owls finished 42-23 and won the final SWC postseason tournament.
- Turned in one of the greatest seasons in Division I history in 1997, winning the WAC Triple Crown with a .431 average, 41 homers and 134 RBIs. He also led the conference in runs and hits.
- Overall, was 11th in the nation in batting, second in runs, third in hits, second in slugging and first in total bases, RBI and home runs
- In the 1997 NCAA Tournament, Rice swept through the Central Regionals and Berkman was named the Most Outstanding Player.
- The Owls’ subsequent trip to the College World Series was the first in school history.
- For his efforts, was named National Player of the Year by the NCBWA and was a unanimous All-American at first base
- Final career stats: .385 batting average, 67 home runs, 272 RBI
Billy Wagner, pitcher, Ferrum College, 1991-93
- Earned first-team All-American, All-Conference, All-State and All-Region in 1993
- Compiled a career record of 17-3 with a 1.63 ERA
- Holds the Division III career records for strikeouts (327 in 182.1 innings) and fewest hits allowed per nine innings (2.22)
- Holds the NCAA single season records for strikeouts per nine innings (19.1 in 1992) and fewest hits allowed per game (1.58 in 1992)
Did you know:
Lance Berkman and Billy Wagner aren’t just connected by their National College Baseball Hall of Fame inductions. The two were teammates with the Houston Astros and now are also connected by their inductions into the Astros Hall of Fame.
Both men were inducted in the Astros Hall of Fame during an on-field ceremony on Aug. 7. Their induction plaques also will be on display in Hall of Fame Alley behind the left field wall of Minute Maid Park, according to MLB.com. Berkman and Wagner were among six inductees recognized as the 2020 class, although their ceremony was delayed because of the pandemic.
Berkman played for the Astros from 1999-2010. During his tenure, he hit 326 home runs and drove in 1,090 runs in 12 seasons with the with the club while playing first base and outfield. Those statistics put him in the top five among offensive players in club history.
Because of COVID-19 protocols, Berkman was unable to attend the ceremony, according to MLB.com.
Wagner played for the Astros from 1995 to 2003 and recorded a club-record 225 games. He also made three All-Star teams and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young Award voting in 1999.
In 1999, Wagner set a single-season franchise record for saves with 39. He broke his own record in 2003, recording 44 saves.
Wagner also played for four other teams after ending his time with the Astros. During the ceremony, Wagner spoke about how the organization facilitated success.
“As a team it was fun to come out and know we were gonna win every day and I was gonna have a chance to play and special things could happen,” he said, according to the Chronicle. “We just had an organization that allowed everybody to be successful.”
He also discussed what it means to join fellow franchise greats.
“I didn’t realize it could possibly happen,” Wagner said, according to MLB.com. “I don’t think the Hall of Fame was ever even spoken about when we were coming up. I think the thing that stands out is when you look up there on the walls and you see the names of Hall of Famers and substantial people like Nolan, (Ryan) it’s humbling. What it means to me is I’m very fortunate. I played at a time where I had a lot of good players behind me and a lot of guys in front of me that got me the ball and made the plays. I’m very lucky to be here.”