CARY, N.C. — Chris Hanks relied on wisdom gained through 16 seasons as Colorado Mesa University’s baseball coach and his playing days that span from Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale to the minor leagues to finally guide the Mavericks to their first NCAA Division II national championship appearance.
Hanks’ team was forced to settle for a runner-up finish after a 3-2 loss in 12 innings to Southern Indiana on Saturday night before a record crowd of 2,848 at the USA Baseball Complex, but he can pinpoint the major steps it took to get here for the first time and hopefully return.
“Obviously we’re very disappointed,” Hanks said. “We had multiple opportunities to get a base hit to win it, but we couldn’t get it done. That’s due in large part to their fine pitching. There’s a very fine line in a 3-2 game over 12 innings, but I’m proud of our guys. We fought all year but we didn’t get the timely hit or break.”
The program’s turning point that Hanks points to was adding small ball and pitching depth to a school long known for big bats. The versatility helped the Mavericks overcome past losses in the regionals and an early exit from the national tournament the only other time Mesa advanced in 2009.
“It was a process to get here,” Hanks said. “This was our most complete team.”
Hanks said following his promotion to head coach in 1999, he began to realize Mesa would only be a regional power without better balance.
“What happened was our offense was bogged down when we went to sea level at places like Chico State or UC San Diego,” he said. “We were addicted to power, and it’s hard to break that addiction.”
Hanks began to study programs that thrived on bunting and base-running.
“We started working on bunting at every practice,” Hanks said. “We had our 3-hole kid bunt. Kids started saying, ‘What are you doing, coach?’ We said we were trying to move runners along. We discovered our run production didn’t drop off; we started as many rallies with a bunt as with a double or home run. Then the kids started to buy in.”
Against Southern Indiana, Mesa rallied for a 2-1 lead in the bottom of the third. The inning started with three consecutive bunts — aided by two throwing errors.
Austin Wallingford, leading off the inning, bunted and advanced to second when third baseman Matt Bowles threw the ball into right field foul territory. Kevan Elcock put down another bunt and, this time, pitcher Ben Wright threw the ball into the right field foul territory. Wallingford came home and Elcock took second.
A third bunt by Sergio Valenzuela sacrificed Elcock to third, and right fielder Austin Kaiser followed with a single to left field to score Elcock with his 61st RBI of the year in 59 games.
Southern Indiana’s Matt Bowles drew the game-winning walk in the 12th inning after Andrew Cope was hit by a pitch and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt and to third on a bloop single by Ryan Bertram that was nearly snared by Mesa third baseman Tony Audino.
Southern Indiana’s Matt Chavaria, who picked up the save in Friday’s win to advance SIU to the final, pitched the final four innings to record the win after starting the game at shortstop.
Hanks said he learned on-and-off-the-field lessons from the team’s first appearance in 2009 when the Mavericks suffered an early exit with a 1-2 record in the double-elimination tournament.
“We got a feel for that park in 2009,” Hanks said. “It’s not a hitter-friendly place. You’ve got to have pitchers with good command and players that can play defense and handle the bat.”
Hanks said he also had a better handle on his players’ off-time to keep them focused on baseball rather than sight-seeing at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium, North Carolina’s campus in Chapel Hill campus or beaches in Wilmington.
“This time we had team meetings at 9:45 p.m. every night,” Hanks said. “In 2009, the parents thought they were on vacation with their kids. We have great families, but we told our kids to ask the parents to understand why we’re here.”
As an example of Mesa’s improved balance and depth, the roster includes four potential picks in the upcoming Major League Baseball draft.
Senior right fielder Austin Kaiser, the National Division II Player of the Year as voted by the American Baseball Coaches Association, batted .482 with 11 home runs and 60 RBIs and 30 stolen bases; junior starting pitcher Matt Delay was 9-0 with a 3.57 ERA; junior reliever Dakota Behr had six saves; and junior shortstop Nate Robertson batted .366 with six home runs, 48 RBIs and 25 stolen bases.
“I don’t care if it’s Division I or Division II, it means a lot to the kids to get here,” Hanks said. “This means as much to our kids as it does to kids at Stanford or Arizona State.”