By Dave Ruthenberg, Sports Editor
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
When Heartland Community College opened its new campus in Normal, Ill., in 2000, the closest the Hawks came to having an athletic presence were the words “Heartland Baseball” printed on some T-shirts, meant then as a friendly joke between friends.
Today, nobody is joking about Heartland baseball.
The third-ranked Hawks, in only their sixth year of existence, will be making their third-straight appearance in the National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association Division II World Series when they open play Sunday at noon against No. 2 UConn-Avery Point at David Allen Memorial Ballpark.
“We had a half-dozen T-shirts made up as Christmas presents and shared a laugh,” said Heartland athletic director and head baseball coach Nate Metzger.
He was referring to his first tour of the then-new campus in Normal, Ill., where his friend Jon Astroth – who played professional baseball and spent some time in the Texas Rangers organization — was president.
“We laughed, but he also told me that it (having a baseball team) was his vision,” Metzger said.
Six years later, Metzger, who also serves as an associate scout for the Atlanta Braves, was hired as the school’s first athletic director and head baseball coach.
“It’s been exciting to build the program from the ground up,” Metzger said.
The team has not had a losing season since its inception, and now plays in what Metzger calls “one of the best facilities in junior college.” It would be hard to argue otherwise as several four-year colleges would like to play in a $12 million stadium, or as it is affectionately called, “The Corn Crib,” in deference to Heartland’s locale among the cornfields of Illinois.
The “Crib” is all turf, which is extremely important to a team in the weather-challenged northern region where collegiate baseball teams typically find their seasons significantly shortened compared to their warm weather peers in the south and southwest.
The Hawks share their on-campus stadium with the Normal Cornbelters, an independent minor league baseball team that competes in the Frontier League. The team also has the added benefit of use of a $10 million on-campus indoor facility.
The facilities also serve as a significant recruiting tool.
“Kids will commit on the day of their visit when seeing the facilities,” Metzger said, adding that “winning helps.”
Indeed, word seems to have gotten out about Heartland as next year’s recruiting class includes 18 players from nine states.
And as any follower of junior college athletics knows, recruiting is a constant process at a two-year college. While Metzger, 41, doesn’t mind recruiting — he will typically spend 20 out of 30 days in June on the road — he doesn’t necessarily enjoy the short-term nature of the relationships that are established.
“Building relationships with players and shaping them to where you want them is what I enjoy most,” he said. “But in the junior college world, each team is basically new each year and that time is so short.”
However, there also is a recruiting angle that entices potential players. “Kids can come here and play right away,” Metzger noted. “They don’t have to sacrifice a thing (facilities wise or playing time) and don’t have to sit.”
And many find their way to four-year schools. “In the past five years, we have accumulated $1.2 million in four-year scholarships,” said Metzger, who played collegiately at Greenville College in Illinois.
That trend continues, and it’s paying off for the Hawks who finished the season 48-9 and earned another trip to the World Series with a 13-3 win over Danville.
The strength of the Heartland team lies within its pitching staff with four of its five starters maintaining an ERA under 2.00. Their team ERA is a stingy 2.07. They are led on the hill by Johnny Lieske, who transferred from Illinois State and is on his way to the University of Alabama-Birmingham after this season. Lieske is 8-2 on the season, has an ERA of 1.19 and has recorded 101 strikeouts.
“We may not be as sexy as far as offense as we were last season, but to win in the World Series you have to pitch well as the competition is that much higher,” Metzger said. “You can be a great hitting team, but get shut down in the World Series.”
The Hawks though didn’t win 48 games without some offense and are hitting .313 as a team, led by Andrew McCafferty with a .367 average and a team-leading 40 RBI.
The Hawks finished third in the World Series in 2012 after winning only one game in its first appearance in 2011.
“Our goal is to win the darned thing,” Metzger said, but he is quick to tip his hat to the defending champs from LSU-Eunice (48-8), who return to defend their title ranked No. 1 in the nation. “They have been here so many times (seven appearances), they are the favorites. Whether we can match up ... I think we can.”
Metzger will get a good idea where his squad stands with its opening game Sunday against second-ranked UConn-Avery Point (38-8). “They’re a lot like LSU-Eunice,” Metzger said. “They are one of the powerhouses. But we can’t worry about that, you have to settle in and just play the game.”
Which is something the Hawks have done well this season, to the tune of an .857 winning percentage and a No. 3 ranking, making them one of the teams to beat in this year’s World Series.