It’s tough to imagine a better regular season than the one the Cowley College baseball team had in 2015.
The Tigers took over the No. 1 spot in the NJCAA rankings on April 1 and stayed there. They entered the Region VI Tournament at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium with a 51-3 record and the NJCAA Division I Player of the Year, third baseman Garrett Benge.
And when it came time to crown a Region VI champion, the Tigers were left at home — part of a bigger pattern at Region VI, where the top-seeded teams rarely come out on top. Only twice in the last decade — Hutchinson in 2010 and Johnson County in 2014 — has the top seed advanced to the NJCAA College World Series.
No. 3-seed Dodge City won in 2015, defeating Cowley 7-1 in the championship game. Region VI play opened at Lawrence-Dumont on Friday and runs through Monday, or Tuesday if necessaary.
“I think it’s what makes the tournament so interesting, it’s what makes it unpredictable,” said Cowley coach Dave Burroughs, who has led his team to six Region VI titles and two NJCAA titles in 29 seasons. “This year, it’s nice not to have the target on our back. Let somebody else be the team everybody’s out to get.”
The team with the target on its back this year is No. 1-seed Neosho County (49-9), which opened Friday with a 13-3 run-rule win over No. 9 Allen after freshman third baseman and Sedgwick native Brylie Ware, the NJCAA’s Triple Crown winner and Jayhawk East Player of the Year, broke a 3-3 tie with a single in the bottom of the sixth. Neosho will play Kansas City, a 4-2 winner over Hutchinson, at 7 p.m. Saturday.
No. 3 seed Cowley (38-16) faces No. 6 Garden City (42-14) at 7 p.m. Friday.
“Because it’s an eight-team tourney, it rarely yields the best team,” Neosho coach Steve Murry said. “It’s usually the hottest team. I wish we would go back to the four-team finals, because the best team usually comes out of that. Eight teams, you need too much pitching and you play that many days in a row ... it’s just whoever gets hot.”
Neosho won its last Region VI title in 2013, as the No. 8 seed in an eight-team tournament. In the three years Region VI went to four teams, 2010 to 2012, only Hutchinson won as the top seed. Neosho dropped from No. 1 to No. 5 in the NJCAA poll last week, despite not losing a game, and was back up to No. 4 this week.
Ware went 1 for 4 with two runs and one RBI, and joked after the game that he thought “the entire town of Sedgwick is here, I think.” Neosho center fielder Darian Abram went 4 for 5 with two RBIs and three runs.
“I think there were some nerves to begin with,” Ware said. “Once we settled down, we were fine. Darian Abram just came up so big today, for us. He was good from the start, even when we were struggling a little.”
And while Murry might lament pitching depth, he seems to have the staff to handle it, with three pitchers in the top 10 in the Jayhawk in wins — Saturday starter Mason Knopp (10-0, 3.72 ERA), Friday’s winning pitcher, Trent Latta (9-1, 3.34) and Tyler Mitzel (8-4, 4.67)
“I think if we play our game, we’re pretty hard to beat,” Ware said. “Hitters that are good at putting the ball in play, and enough pitching to make it through a tournament. If we just keep our heads and do what’s worked all year, I think we will be fine.”
And, as the top seed, maybe defy the odds.
“Any level, these things can end up being kind of a crapshoot,” Burroughs said. “Crazy things happen. Look at us last year, with that record, and we came up short.”
REGION VI BASEBALL
at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium
Kansas City Kansas 4, Hutchinson 2
Neosho County 13, Allen 3 (7 innings)
Johnson County (41-16) vs. Coffeyville (19-36), 4 p.m.
Cowley (38-16) vs. Garden City (42-14), 7 p.m.
Allen (27-27) vs. Hutchinson (37-18), 10 a.m.
Neosho County (49-9) vs. Kansas City Kansas (39-18), 7 p.m.