The last time the Cowley College baseball team was ranked No. 1, they went wire-to-wire at the spot in 1998, winning a second straight NJCAA national championship.
So when the Tigers climbed to the top of the rankings on April 15, they welcomed it. Then they unleashed it.
“Being ranked No. 1 doesn’t come around very often,” said Cowley coach Dave Burroughs, who is in his 28th season. “I told them to embrace it. I told them to take it in, enjoy it and turn it into something. And they’ve done that very well.”
Cowley (45-3, 29-3 Jayhawk East) has kicked into another gear since taking over No. 1, scoring 80 runs in five straight run-rule victories.
“We felt like we’ve been No. 1 all year, we just want chances to prove it,” sophomore pitcher Parker Rigler said. “It just helps us kind of reaffirm the path we’re on.”
It’s a path that Cowley hopes brings it back to the NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction, Colo., for the first time since 2009. The obstacles in their way begin Thursday with two games at Highland. The Scotties come to Arkansas City for two games on Saturday and Cowley finishes out its regular season at Rose State on Tuesday.
The Tigers can clinch Burroughs’ 16th Jayhawk East title against Highland. The Region VI Tournament is May 7-12 to earn the right to go to the World Series.
“I haven’t heard them talk a lot about (the postseason),” Burroughs said. “They’ve don’t get outside of the moment. They’re very focused.”
The Tigers have talked about it plenty – just away from games and practices.
“It’s something we talk about a lot in the dorms, or when we’re out together,” Rigler said. “One thing (Burroughs) has done after we’ve lost games this year, when we’re kind of at our lowest point, is brought up his teams that won titles in the past, how they had setbacks, too, and they overcame them. “
Rigler (6-foot, 170 pounds) went 9-0 last season and was named the Jayhawk East Freshman of the Year. The Edmond, Okla., native followed that up this season by turning himself into an All-American candidate. He’s 9-0 with a 2.28 ERA, 58 strikeouts and 12 walks.
“When you’re getting 12 or 13 runs per game, that helps a lot,” said Rigler, who is considering Kansas State, New Mexico State and Central Arkansas. “For me, my focus has been to beat last year. To be better than I was as a freshman … I want to go challenge hitters, keep going after people. I felt like if I kept that stuff in mind, things would fall into place.”
No conversation about the Tigers is complete without mentioning freshman third baseman Garrett Benge, an Oklahoma State committment and NJCAA Player of the Year candidate.
Benge leads the nation in batting average (.558), runs batted in (80), hits (61), doubles (25), on-base percentage (.651) and slugging percentage (1.043). He’s second in the nation with 40 walks and third with 16 home runs.
“He’s one of the better teammates I’ve ever been around,” Burroughs said. “And I’ve been around a long, long time. He genuinely wants the people around him to do big things, and takes joy in that. In turn, when he does something big, his teammates go nuts.”