No pressure on DSU after series win

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 3, 2004

[6/3/04]The count was 3-2. Delta State catcher Craig Newton called for the pitch from Scott Ellison.

Strike three, game over. And the celebration began.

Delta State completed a magical season and finished with the first Division II national championship in school history a 12-8 victory over Grand Valley State in Montgomery, Ala., on Saturday.

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“When I caught that last ball, it was like a dream I had as a little boy came true,” said Newton, a former Warren Central standout.

And apparently the third time was the charm for Delta State.

The Statesmen had reached the title game in 1968 and 1978, losing both times. They also had been to nine World Series before this year, which was their third in four years under coach Mike Kinnison.

So had the pressure been building for them to win?

“What do you think?” Kinnison said with a laugh.

It may have taken a while, but many champions suffer a crushing defeat before pulling everything together.

For Delta State, the 2002 World Series sat in the minds of the veteran players. The Statesmen had high hopes after finishing third in the nation in 2001, but lost two straight games and returned to Cleveland before they could unpack their bags.

“I hate to say it was devastating, but it was,” said Newton, who was a freshman at the time. “It’s something you work all your life for, you get there and you just play some of the worst ball ever.”

So this time around, it was all business.

The Statesmen laid out their goals winning 40 games, winning the conference tournament, winning an NCAA Regional in August, well before even the fall season began, Newton said.

The team struggled with its chemistry to begin the year 14-7, but they began to jell quickly.

Delta State won 13 of its next 15 and found itself at 27-9. They followed that with an unprecedented 17-game win streak to end the regular season at 44-9.

“They were very business-like,” Kinnison said. “They knew what they had to do and went out and did it. They were very focused.”

And when their backs were against the wall, the Statesmen fought back.

In the Gulf South Conference Tournament, Valdosta State beat Delta State 10-9 on a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth to force an elimination game in the championship. The Statesmen won the next game 22-5.

In regional play, Southern Arkansas came close in game two, a 5-4 DSU win. On the next day, the Statesmen bullied that same team 24-2 to reach the World Series.

And the trend continued in Montgomery. DSU won 6-5 in the opening game against top-ranked Central Missouri State, but lost to Central two games later.

On Friday, Delta State faced Central for a third time and won 10-9 to reach the championship game.

“Nobody likes losing, but around here we don’t accept it, no matter what,” Newton said. “We always find flaws that we messed up in and try to correct them.”

Newton even corrected his own flaws.

Some opening game jitters led to one of the worst games of Newton’s career. In the 6-5 win over Central Missouri, Newton went 0-for-5 and committed three errors.

“All I wanted to do was turn around that night and play five minutes later,” he said. “Give me a Snickers and I’m ready to go five minutes after that game. It was just like I was out to prove something to my team because I let them down.”

Determined to play better, he went 3-for-4 with a home run in the next game, and hit two homers including a grand slam the next time he faced Central Missouri.

Newton hit .409 with three home runs and eight RBIs in the five World Series games, but his performance at the plate won’t sit in his mind as much as the dust popping off his glove when the final pitch hit it on Saturday.

“All the celebration went on, and I go back over there and I sit in the dugout,” Newton said. “I just looked out there and I said, Is this really happening?’

“I think 20 years from now it’ll really sink in more than it does now. I really haven’t realized it yet. It’s something that doesn’t happen every day.”