ENID — Northeast Nebraska started the season in Enid and will end it in Enid, which was always a part of the plan.
Head coach Marcus Clapp knew his team was talented enough to make it to the 2019 NJCAA Division II World Series, but he had to keep one thing in mind — his baseball program was hardly a year old.
“I knew we had a lot of work to do,” Clapp said Monday evening.
The Hawks are in the midst of their first World Series run in the program’s second season of existence. In that time span, Clapp and his program faced obstacles like harsh weather and a challenging recruiting trail, all while playing a difficult schedule of junior college baseball.
Inclement weather forced NE Nebraska to take long gaps in their schedule this year with some lasting a little more than two weeks.
“We couldn’t catch a break,” Clapp said.
The Hawks faced frigid temperatures and snowfall with the latter being a reoccurring issue. The championship round of the North Plains District had to be rescheduled due to snow. In May.
“Then (we) come down here and it rains five inches,” Clapp said. “So, I think we’re kind of bad luck with the weather.”
Since the Northeast program’s birth, the Hawks have used Enid as a means to escape the weather and play quality baseball. Last season, the Jets took a 2-0 series win over the Hawks. In February, NOC Enid won the season-opening series 3-1.
“That’s a good ball club,” NOC Enid head coach Raydon Leaton said Saturday night. “They battled us for four games. Usually, those guys (northern teams) are way better in April than they are in February.”
Building the Hawks came down to getting “the right kids” through the door. They needed not only talent, but high-character.
“The most important thing to me was building the program with the culture,” Clapp said. “Setting the tone of what I want the program to be and getting the right kids to do that.”
Clapp had to sell his brand-new program to recruits against programs with set foundations.
“It’s hard to go somewhere where nobody knows anything about (us),” he said.
The 2018 season was Clapp’s first as a head coach of a program. He had spent 17 years as a pitching coach with stops with the University of Nebraska-Kearney and Scottsdale Community College (Ariz.), where he helped the Fighting Artichokes to the World Series four times. Leaton, who like Clapp also built his program from scratch, said recruiting in the first year puts a coach a little bit behind when they get the job.
“Once you get a full year of recruiting in, your program should get better,” Leaton said. “Obviously, there’s did."
Clapp’s two selling points were simple: the freshmen coming into the program would be able to play right away and be a part of something bigger than themselves.
Clapp’s pitch worked for Drew Smith, who is one of the returning sophomores for NE Nebraska. Both Clapp and friend and teammate Tanner Hunt sold Smith on coming to Northeast to help the Hawks establish themselves.
In its inaugural season, Northeast finished 18-38-1 and went 6-22 in the Iowa Community College Athletic Conference (ICCAC). But the Hawks made a complete 180 this season, finishing 34-19 during the regular season and a 16-12 ICCAC record.
Clapp said the returning sophomores were “crucial” to this season as the second-year players had knowledge of the program’s culture and the conference the Hawks played in.
“The sophomore class had a bunch of experience and I think this year’s freshmen class really played a huge part,” Smith said.
Smith led the Hawks at the plate with a .438 batting average, an .845 slugging percentage with a team-high 18 home runs and 67 RBI. On Monday against Madison, Smith hit a three-run home run and a grand slam in the same inning to help NE Nebraska cut Madison’s once 14-run lead down to four runs.
The Wolfpack eventually defeated the Hawks, however, 21-14, which means they face elimination moving forward. But playing with their backs against the wall isn’t a new concept to the Hawks. In the Region 11 tournament, NE Nebraska lost its first game of the tournament before winning the next five to advance to the North Plains District tournament, where they swept Miles, Mont., in two games to make it to the World Series.
The Hawks won their first World Series game by beating Monroe Community College (N.Y.), 12-11, on Sunday and still have a fighting chance to win a national championship.
Regardless of what happens, Smith and his teammates are proud of what they’ve done.
“The first time being here … is just a testament to who everyone is as a person and teammate,” he said. “It’s something to be very proud of.”