Big Red baseball celebrates a championship season
When Chris Cruz '14 crushed a two-run home run over the right field wall May 6, it kicked off one of the wildest celebrations ever seen on Hoy Field. Sure, the sophomore slugger broke a program record with 12 home runs in a season. And, yes, the blast came in the bottom of the 11th inning to give the Big Red a 3-1 victory over Dartmouth.
But most importantly, the home run came in the third game of the best-of-three Ivy League Championship Series, giving the Big Red its first Ivy title since the league added baseball 20 years prior. Cornell's last baseball league title was in 1977, in the Eastern Intercollegiate Baseball League. The May 6 win sent the Big Red to just its second appearance in the NCAA Regionals in the program's 143-year history, where it stood toe-to-toe with the top two seeds -- North Carolina and East Carolina -- before being eliminated in Chapel Hill, N.C.
"We got a tremendous experience out of this year," said Bill Walkenbach '98, the Ted Thoren Head Coach of Baseball. "We've created a lot of buzz among our alumni and university about the program. We hope that our alumni really got a lot out of it for themselves and sort of reattached to the program."
Relief pitcher Kellen Urbon '15, who set a program record for saves in a season with nine, was unanimously selected Ivy League Rookie of the Year and an All-Ivy League First Team selection. He was joined on the First Team by starting pitcher Connor Kaufmann '14, who provided the season's other most memorable moment when he hurled a no-hitter on April 1 against Dartmouth. All told, 11 Big Red players earned Ivy League postseason recognition.
The awards demonstrate what a monumental season the Big Red had. After the 2011 season saw a program record for losses (30), this year's team returned many players at key offensive and defensive positions for 2012, but the pitching staff featured a plethora of freshmen and incumbents shifting into new roles.
"We set out to change some things and change how we play the game," said catcher Brandon Lee, one of seven seniors on the squad.
It didn't take long to see that the formula was a winner. Cornell swept four games at Maryland-Eastern Shore to start the year, then won the first two games of a series at George Washington the following weekend to post a 6-0 record for the first time since Theodore Roosevelt was president. Freshman pitcher Brent Jones got off to a blazing-hot start with a 4-0 record, 1.44 ERA, 27 strikeouts and three complete games in his first four collegiate appearances. Brian Billigen '12 -- who has since signed a professional contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks -- had a 16-game hitting streak, and Spenser Souza '13 stole home for the winning run in the ninth inning of a game at Longwood. The team eclipsed its win total from 2011 before even playing its first home game of 2012.
That winning mentality fueled the rest of the season -- and perhaps will filter into the future, too.
"I think this is going to do great things for our confidence in years to come," Walkenbach said. "Our younger players are going to carry this experience forward, and I expect them to expect to win. Having played in so many tough, high-stakes games as they have this year, it's going to be great for their confidence and their mental toughness."
"I've never had more fun -- coaching or playing," he added. "We had a unique mix of hard-nosed guys, fun-loving guys, hard-working guys and talented guys. You bring that all together, and it was kind of a perfect storm for us."