TUSCON, Ariz. – In its very first game under head coach Justin Brown, the North Central University baseball team defeated fellow Upper Midwest Athletic (UMAC) opponent Bethany Lutheran College 6-5 to open the 2017 season. In their second game of the day, the Rams played tight with as-yet-undefeated Newbury College but fell by a final of 9-5.
Under sunny skies in Tuscon, Ariz., and with temperatures in the mid-75s, North Central started its seven-game spring break trip by battling the Vikings of Bethany Lutheran (Mankato, Minn.). Although BLC jumped on the board first with two runs in the bottom of the second inning, NCU answered with three more in a two-out rally in their very next at-bat. With runners at first and third, sophomore Bryce Riege (Marshall, Wis./Marshall) singled up the middle to score Arizona-native Cory Kukkola (Fountain Hills, Ariz./Fountain Hills). Following another single from sophomore Tate Andrews (Coon Rapids, Minn./Coon Rapids) to load the bases, freshman Grant Payne (Fall River, Wis./Fall River) got his first career single and RBI, and the Rams were able to capitalize on an error from the Vikings to score another runner and take a lead they would never relinquish. Although BLC put together a rally to tie the game at five-all in the seventh inning, North Central scored in the top of the ninth on a sacrifice fly from freshman Noah Harvey (Auburn, Neb./Auburn Senior) to secure Coach Brown's first career win.
Riege pitched six innings for the Rams, giving up three earned runs, striking out four batters and walking two. Freshman Blazsen Ferreira (Mililani, Hawaii/Waipahu) came in for the final three innings to get the win, giving up just two earned runs with two strikeouts and two walks.
At the plate, Riege led the Rams, going 2-5 with three RBI and two runs. Payne added another two hits (in four at-bats), two RBI and a walk. Andrews and Ferreira each chipped two hits, and Kukkola, junior Brandon Scott (Chicago, Ill./Timothy Christian), and sophomore Robert Donahoe (Traverse City, Mich./Traverse City West) each added one.
As a team, the Rams recorded their six runs on 11 hits, with five walks, 11 strikeouts, one error and 12 runners left on base.
Thirty minutes after their season-opening win, the Rams took the field again, this time against Newbury College (Brookline, Mass.). The Nighthawks were already 6-0 on their young season, but North Central hung on for seven innings before Newbury blasted five runs in the bottom of the eighth to pull away for a 9-5 win.
North Central led off the game by loading the bases, thanks in part to two batters being hit by pitches. Sophomore Taylor Justice (Lafayette, Ind./Jefferson) scored when Riege reached first base on a fielder's choice, and Kukkola immediately followed thanks to an error by the Nighthawks. Newbury answered with two runs to tie the score in the next inning and then took the lead in the third, but a pair of doubles by the Rams in the top of the fifth helped bring the game back to a tie. North Central gave up one an unearned run to the Nighthawks in the bottom of the sixth, and then Newbury's bats exploded two innings later to knock in five runs on six hits, including two triples. The Rams got back two runs in their last at-bat, but the rally fell short and NCU was handed its first loss of 2017.
Kukkola had a strong day at the plate for the Rams, notching two hits (a double and a triple), scoring three runs and driving in another. Scott went 3-4 with two RBI, and Justice went 2-4 with one run and one walk. Sophomore Jonathon Kutzke (Coon Rapids, Minn./Coon Rapids) pitched 7.1 innings for NCU, giving up eight hits and three earned runs for the loss. As a team, North Central recorded nine hits, three RBI, one walk and nine strikeouts with nine runners left on base.
The Rams are back in action Tuesday morning against Simpson College (Indianola, Iowa) and then will enjoy a day of rest before returning to the field on Thursday afternoon.