Hard work on and off the field has put the Northeast Community College baseball team in position to compete for a national championship.
Playing in just its second season, the Hawks, 36-18, qualified for the National Junior College Athletic Association’s Division II World Series, which runs from May 25 to June 1 at David Allen Memorial Ballpark in Enid, Okla.
Marcus Clapp, Northeast head coach, said he saw a lot of encouraging signs already last year during the team’s 18-38-1 inaugural season.
It began last fall when the players practiced hard and put three months’ of outdoors work in after that inaugural season. Then, during January and February, the players continued to work indoors on fundamentals.
Clapp said he saw talent and provided lots of encouragement to his players.
Even so, making the Division II World Series almost seemed like it was too big of a step.
“You don’t ever imagine that, especially going through our conference,” Clapp said. “It’s a tough road to get there and having to win the conference tournament. The ability was always there. It was just a matter of them finding it and wanting it.”
Northeast, which has won seven in a row, is scheduled to open play Saturday at 4 p.m. against Monroe Community College of New York.
“There are still people out there who probably don’t even know Northeast exists,” Clapp said. “Obviously, what we have accomplished this year will help.”
There’s a strong Omaha connection on this year’s team. Clapp said he didn’t even really notice it until the team’s roster was being announced before playing last weekend in Miles City, Mont., for the North Plains District Championship.
Nine of the 10 players in the starting lineup were from the Omaha area.
“There is a lot of talent in Omaha,” Clapp said. “I think it gets overlooked somewhat, but then from my side of the recruiting, it’s heavily recruited from the junior college side. For us to get into Omaha, it’s a big deal.”
Northeast also has one Norfolk player, Brandon Zwiener, a freshman. Heath Koehler, another Norfolkan, played last year and graduated.
Two other recent Norfolk High School graduates, Dylan Rodgers and Wil Fisher, are scheduled to enroll at Northeast in the fall.
Among the Omaha area players are Drew Smith of Elkhorn, who switched from right field last season to second base. Smith was named the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
Smith said he also thought the team’s improvement began in fall ball. Then, as this season progressed, players took another step up during the conference tournament.
“We made a really big jump this year,” he said. “Once we started rolling a bit and got to the conference tournament, I thought we had the chance to do something special. Sure enough, we went through our district and here we are.”
Five times the Hawks faced elimination playing in the double-elimination conference tournament. Yet they always won.
Clapp said he has coached players for 17 years.
“Drew (Smith) ranks up there as one of the best I have ever coached,” Clapp said. “He’s always the first one to practice and he works hard. He’s a good leader on the field. He does a phenomenal job for us.”
Cam Taylor of Papillion, a freshman, said he was attracted to Northeast after thinking he might be finished playing baseball. A lot of players he knew played at Northeast and encouraged him to play, he said.
“They told me there was a place for me here,” Taylor said. “It’s been true. I have had a really good time getting to know everybody here, and I have had fun.”
Taylor was named a First Team All Region selection with an 8-2 record in 69 innings during the regular season, with 76 strikeouts and a 3.76 ERA.
Clapp said early in the season, weather made it difficult to get into a groove. The team might play a couple of games, then be idle for a week or two and only be able to practice indoors.
Nevertheless, the team has always been balanced.
“We hit pretty well when we didn’t pitch well early,” Clapp said. “And then we had a stretch where we didn’t hit, but we pitched OK. The last month or so, we’ve kind of had a stretch where we have pitched well and got key hits and timely hits when we needed them. We have had a lot of guys step up when called upon, including Cam (Taylor) bouncing back in the conference tournament after two days rest. He’s one of the reasons why we’re here.”