Tabor baseball coach Mark Standiford is talking about steps.
Not just the ones his team took this year on the way to their first NAIA World Series — a KCAC regular-season title, KCAC Tournament title and NAIA regional title — but the ones that dotted his six years coaching the Bluejays.
“Every year, every player that’s played here took a part in this,” Standiford said. “They helped us get to this point. To finally break through ... it’s been a lot of excitement, a lot of support from our campus and our alumni. We’d been so close and now we’ve finally broken through.”
Tabor’s big break came last Thursday when they defeated Viterbo (Wis.) 5-1 in an NAIA regional championship game in Hutchinson to qualify for the NAIA World Series in Lewiston, Idaho, where Tabor (49-11) will take on Southern Poly (45-17) at 11 a.m. Friday in their World Series opener.
It’s the second time a KCAC has reached the national tourney, a year after Sterling’s appearance. Tabor, which has won three straight KCAC titles, has come close the last two seasons, losing to eventual NAIA runnerup Rogers State in 2012 in the regional championship and to San Diego Christian College last season, also in regional play.
“There’s 190 teams playing in the NAIA and only 10 make it to Lewiston,” Standiford said. “Our guys were elated when we made it. We had graduation on Saturday, so we’re all done and can just focus on baseball.”
Tabor left Hillsboro via chartered bus on Monday morning, practiced and spent Monday night in Casper, Wyo., then drove to Lewiston on Tuesday.
“We had an opportunity to do something no team at Tabor had ever done, and we jumped on it,” said senior outfielder Kirk Rocha, the KCAC player of the year. “I think we’re all looking forward to playing on this stage, in front of all these people and showing what Tabor is all about.”
Rocha led the KCAC in batting average (.453), hits (92) and runs (76) and was second in RBIs (55) and stolen bases (33).
All-KCAC pitcher Junior Mustain (11-2, 1.64 ERA) will get the start for the Bluejays against Southern Poly. KCAC co-pitcher of the year Jacob Webb (11-3, 1.04 ERA) will pitch the second game.
“The last time I pitched was the first game of the regional, so it’s been a long wait,” Mustain said. “I couldn’t be more excited to get out there.”
Southern Poly finished third in the Southern States Athletic Conference and defeated Faulkner, which also made it to the World Series, in the SSAC tournament championship game. The Hornets are led by All-SSAC outfielder Khirus Ware, who leads the team in batting average (.373), RBIs (48) and hits (81).
Third baseman Dalton Martinez was also an All-SSAC pick, batting .368 with 34 RBIs. The Hornets are led by second-year coach Marty Lovrich, a longtime assistant at Auburn-Montgomery.
“(Standiford) got kind of emotional after the regional, I went to give him a hug and he got a little teary-eyed,” Rocha said. “We knew we had the team to do it, we just had to come together more.”