When classes end on Wednesday, students will prepare for senior week in San Diego or studying for finals. Meanwhile, the Pomona-Pitzer baseball team will be focused on finishing a process that quietly began four years ago: making the national championships.
The seven players from the class of 2009 were integral to building the team up from a 16-23 finish their first year to a 33-4 record and a No. 1 national D-III ranking. They have done it with timely hits, clutch pitching, and one of the very best offenses in the nation. But they have also done it with an enhanced dedication to their team and their sport, which has helped build a national presence. It is this mix of talent and chemistry they will use in their fight to the national finals later this month in Wisconsin.
The debate about the importance of team chemistry to success is age old, and doesn’t figure to be solved anytime soon. These Sagehens are a persuasive argument that it’s worth something. This team has rallied behind the idea that D-III sports are more than a simple “extra-curricular,” and don’t have to be relegated to a secondary role behind academics.
“They say that D-III sports are about ‘student first, athlete second,’” said co-captain Zach Mandelblatt PO ‘09. “But for us the team means more than that…for a lot of us, this game is more than just something we do.”
For the Sagehens, it is dedication to the team that is important above all. In order to compete in the playoffs, the players will have to miss parts of senior week, restructure their final exam schedules, and possibly miss graduation, but for this team, it is all worth it—and without any doubts.
The result of this team-first attitude, this cohesion and chemistry, has helped the Sagehens avoid ruining another year of towering expectations with a late-season collapse. Last year’s team was as close as you can get to a SCIAC championship without the title itself, before they were swept by Cal Lutheran and La Verne to end the season 27-13. What was supposed to be a strong follow-up to their 2007 SCIAC championship turned into a bitter form of motivation.
The co-captains, Mandelblatt, Drew Hedman PO ’09, and Brandon Huerta PI ’09 immediately went to coach Frank Pericolosi and said things were going to be different. Said that they were going to change the attitude of the program. Said that practices would be harder from the beginning. Said that expectations would be met.
The rest of the graduating class—Tom Church PO ‘09, Kevin Graf PO ‘09, Andrew Nino PO ‘09, and Tom Slade PO ‘09—immediately bought into the focused mentality.
For these players, it is both the on-field and off-field interactions that built the program, exemplified by the fact that the six Pomona seniors live together in a suite in Lawry.
“It’s been a good thing for the team, because we are always getting together,” Hedman said. “In terms of team cohesiveness, we all get along very well on and off the field.”
Their skill was evident long before Lawry, as the team pulled out a 30-13 record and a postseason berth in 2007. After the Sagehens were dispatched in the playoffs with two one-run losses, the team entered the 2008 season, expecting to build on the successes and make a run at the national playoffs. However, P-P failed to make even the Regional playoffs, and the seniors vowed that the days of falling short were done.
The success this season has been an outgrowth of re-dedication to baseball, but also something you can’t teach: team chemistry.
“We have one of the goofiest locker rooms and clubhouse experiences of any team on campus, and I would go so far as to say the country,” added Hedman. “We keep focused and go out and work hard, but we do a good job of keeping loose and messing with each other.”
Mandelblatt promptly added, “Yep, if all the teams that we beat saw how we acted together in the locker room, they would be even more frustrated at losing.”
In other words, the boys like to win, but they have their fun too.
“For [Mike] Goldberg’s [PI ‘10] birthday a month or two ago, we waited for him while he was still on the field taking extra batting practice,” said Mandelblatt. “When he finally came in we were waiting, naked, with our legs up on stools, ready to sing happy birthday.”
While Hedman and Mandelblatt attribute their success heavily to team cohesion, it doesn’t hurt that they can hit the stuffing out of the ball.
The Sagehens are ranked in the top ten of nine offensive categories as of Apr. 26, including one in slugging percentage (.592), two in doubles (111) and doubles per game (3.0), and three in home runs per game (1.54), and fourth in batting average (.37) .
Individually, the team is led by the mighty Hedman. The first baseman leads all of D-III in runs batted in (75), batting average (.517) and slugging percentage (1.082), and ranks second in hits (76) and home runs (22).
Hedman’s big numbers coupled with the Sagehens’ notable national success have caused the big leagues to pay heed.
The big lefty figures to be selected in the upcoming professional draft. If this season is any indicator, Hedman has the capability to elevate his game when adversity strikes.
Mandelblatt figured to be alongside Hedman in the draft process prior to his injury in 2007. After that season, the prestigous scouting service Baseball America ranked him as the number-three D-III prospect in the nation.
“It hasn’t been the same since [surgery],” Mandleblatt said. “I am going to keep working and going to tryouts, and we will just see what happens… [But now] I just want to focus on being the best for my team.”
Now, all the pieces are falling into place. After four years of excitement and heartbreak, the seniors are ready to lead the way.
And a few years from now, keep your eyes out for Hedman and Mandelblatt on the national stage…for who says it need always be academic achievement that brings Pomona-Pitzer honor?