Cody Tucker, Lansing State Journal
They did it with local flavor and a flair for the dramatic. An underdog mentality and a first-year manager propelled them to unthinkable heights.
Tenacity, grit and coachable are just a few terms Drew Huard has used to describe his Lansing Community College baseball team.
They never cracked the top 25. Getting this far was merely a pipe dream.
No one believed but them.
As he approached his team this evening, trophy raised above his head into the Oklahoma sky, he cracked a slight smile and had three more words for his guys.
"I love you," Huard told his team after a 9-2 loss to Mercer County (New Jersey), which eliminated the Stars from the NJCAA DII World Series in Enid, Oklahoma, on Thursday. "It's more me just being proud of team accomplishments, they gave 110 percent effort every night. They gave me all they had. That's all you can ask for as a coach."
The Stars roster, which is made up of 18 players from the Lansing area, turned toward the crowd and tipped its collective cap before walking out of David Allen Memorial Ballpark.
LCC finished No. 3 in the nation, marking the program's first-ever appearance in the World Series.
Still fresh in his mind, sophomore catcher Carson Eby said today was simply not the Stars' day.
"It just wasn't meant to be," he said of LCC finishing one win short of a berth in the national championship game. "We just didn't play our best baseball today. It's been a great run and a great team to be a part of."
Playing in their sixth game in as many days, the Stars (39-16) fell apart in the seventh inning. Eleven Vikings came to the plate in a five-run frame that turned a one-run game into a blowout. Mercer County tacked on an insurance run in the eighth, but the damage was done.
Grand Ledge's Blake Dahlstrom picked up the win on the mound Wednesday, tossing two scoreless innings to force this do-or-die situation. Tonight, he did his part through five innings, giving up three runs while scattering eight hits and fanning three.
Huard said his sophomore simply ran out of gas.
He wasn't the only one.
"This group battled to the very end," Huard said. "They got the best of us today. As a pitching staff, guys got tired. We competed at our very best."
LCC got on the board in the second inning thanks to a two-out, two-run triple off the bat of St. Johns slugger Jake Crum. Christian Keller (Grand Ledge) and Drew Stavischeck (Holt) scored on the hit. The Stars plated eight runs per game this season and averaged 12 runs in the first five games in northern Oklahoma.
Today, two didn't cut it.
Eby, who led the Stars in the World Series with three home runs and 10 RBIs, including a game-winning solo shot in the ninth to top Mercer 7-6 Wednesday, said Viking starter Dennis Brady was the real deal.
"They had a good pitcher," he said of the lefty Brady, who gave up 10 hits and struck out six in eight innings of work. "He led the country in ERA. He just beat us."
Brady improved his record to 11-2 on the season.
Mercer County (46-13) will move on to face the winner of the Kankakee (Illinois)-Parkland (Illinois) game Friday night at 8 p.m. Results for the game were not available at press time.
For LCC, a 1,000-mile bus trip awaits. For Eby, it's another chance to share memories and spend time with his teammates.
He's already started with the stories.
"(Garrett) Hammer's walk-off home run was amazing," he said of the game-winning slam to knock off Oklahoma's lone representative and No. 1 seed Murray State. "I've never felt that way about something that happened in the sporting world. It was like an out-of-body experience.
"We are just really proud of what we accomplished."
So is their skipper.
"I don't really have the words to say about this group," Huard said. "They are a class act, hardworking, and I couldn't be more proud of their achievements on and off the field.
"It will be hard to say goodbye."