DALLAS — Warming up before the start of Misericordia University’s first NCAA Division 3 College World Series, Drake Koch peered in at a field that includes five ranked teams and a lot more of the unknown.
He’s ready to make his best pitch to it.
“We have no idea what’s ahead of us,” Koch, Misericordia’s unbeaten ace starting pitcher, said. “But I do know we’re going to step up and give it our all.”
That kind of confidence has taken the Cougars this far, all the way to Friday’s 2:15 p.m. World Series opener against Randolph Macon at Fox Cities Stadium in Appleton, Wisc.
“We’re going to look at it as any other game,” Misericordia cleanup hitter Tyler Holzpfel said.
It isn’t, of course.
Not for a Misericordia program that is one of five teams making its first appearance in the eight-team Division 3 World Series.
Until this point, the Cougars could only dream of such a run. Their best MAC championship teams before this season, stacked with tremendous talent, torrid hitting and deep pitching, never made it out of the NCAA Regionals.
This one did, although Misericordia coach Pete Egbert can’t really pinpoint why.
“I’m not sure yet,” ECAC coach of the year Egbert said. “We’ve had some talented teams. This team bought into the philosophy. They’ve had their backs up against the wall a lot of times this season and they’ve come through in every spot. But we’ve had that in the past, too.
“The ball’s gotta bounce your way.”
Maybe it’s more about the guys throwing the ball.
Koch is the leader of a dominant starting staff that boasts four seven-game winners, which could take the Cougars deep into World Series play.
He’s 7-0 with a 3.03 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 65.1 innings and coming off a Mid-Atlantic Regional where he won twice and was named the region’s most outstanding player.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting it,” Koch said, “especially with the way the lineup was hitting.”
It was hard to expect this type of season from Koch, a junior from Reading who was used as a spot-starter in non-conference games during his first two college seasons and who had never gone through a year unbeaten on the mound.
“A fourth guy,” Koch said. “Coming into this year, we lost a few starters and I was really hoping I could fill their role as best I could. This year, I’ve been able to put guys away. That’s something I had trouble with in the past. I have my stuff, same pitches I’ve had. I just think I’m more consistent.”
He’s not the only one.
Fellow starter Elliot Forde is also 7-0, Ian McCole is 7-1, Tom Jacob is 7-2 and all have an ERA under 4.00. They’ve all helped overcome the loss of dependable former Hanover Area starter Mike Blazaskie, who suffered a season-ending injury in the 2018 opener.
Then there’s the bullpen.
Dan Zurowski’s been dependable, Zach Mason’s been solid and Ryan Gilgallon — a freshman from Meyers — made a couple of relief appearances in the regular season.
Kyle Melahn is the closer, with a school-record seven saves in a school-record 26 games and a 4-2 record to go with his 2.45 ERA.
“That’s been my role this year,” Melahn said, “and something I’ve really embraced. That’s what the team needed me to do.”
But they’ve been more than willing to step out of their elements.
During regional play, Koch came out of the bullpen to close one game, then pitched on only three days of rest for the first time this season while winning the first game of a doubleheader against Babson in Monday’s championship finals. In the second game, Melahn went a career-long six innings as the starter, Dan Zurowski worked the final three innings of both games and the Cougars pulled off a 12-7, 11-1 sweep to reach the World Series.
“I think it’s a different mentality when you’re going in,” said Melahn, a junior from Morris Catholic in central New Jersey. “When you’re a closer, you’re trying to give everything you can in that one inning. When you’re a starter, you have to be prepared to go for a longer period. It’s a championship game. Whatever you can do to help the team win.”
The batting order has helped a bunch.
The Cougars feature seven starters hitting over .300, including Kenny Jarema with his school-record 48 walks to go with 58 runs scored. And even the .265 hitter Sean Boylan, a freshman shortstop from Easton, has delivered some big blows — including a key double during the regional championships.
Holzapfel is the RBI guy, driving home a team-leading 47 runs with 16 doubles and two home runs.
“Usually, I like those types of high-pressure situations where we can get something done,” said Holzapfel, a sophomore first baseman from Bridgewater, N.J. “With guys on base, I’m just so confident. I like to hit in those situations. It’s a whole new ballgame. I am a little more focused and locked in.”
The Cougars are hardly a lock to win the World Series title. Even with a 36-13 overall record, Misericordia wasn’t ranked in the final regular-season standings by D3baseball.com. The Randolph Macon team they are playing, meanwhile, is No. 5 in the nation, the South Region champion and also sends seven starters to the plate with batting averages over .300 and runs out top-notch pitching.
Joseph Tuzzolo leads the Yellow Jackets with 11 homers, 56 RBI and 49 runs scored and probable starter Colin Selby has an 11-2 record, a 2.60 ERA, 122 strikeouts in 90 innings and a fastball that flourishes between 92 and 94 mph.
An intimidating proposition, right?
Not for a Cougars team that had to beat DeSales twice in the MAC finals to reach regionals and was forced to avenge an earlier loss to 23rd-ranked Babson not once, but twice to make the school’s first World Series.
With that kind of grit, they seem to think more history is theirs for the taking.
“I think we have a really good shot,” Melahn said. “It’s anyone’s game down there, something that none of us have ever been a part of.
Reach Paul Sokoloski at 570-991-6392 or on Twitter @TLPaulSokoloski