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Upstart Western headed to NCAAs

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Early in the season, the Western Michigan baseball team got a visit from Col. William Berris of the United States Marine Corps.

Keegan Akin (7-3) pitched six scoreless inning for Western Michigan in the MAC tournament title game Sunday, allowing one hit and a walk.

And he told the Broncos all about the "Line of Departure."

"Trust your training when you get into those crazy moments of war," said Billy Gernon, WMU's coach. "That, you have to understand.

"In the military, they continue to go back to their training."

It didn't always look promising for Western Michigan — not early in the season, when it suffered some serious injuries; not entering the Mid-American Conference tournament as the No. 7 seed; not even after building a 12-0 lead in Sunday's title game, only to see it quickly dwindle -- but in the end, the Broncos made some history.

Western Michigan beat top-seeded Kent State, 12-7, in the MAC championship game at All Pro Freight Stadium in Avon, Ohio, securing the program's first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1989.

The Broncos (22-32) will learn at noon Monday (ESPNU) where it will be heading, and who it will face first in the postseason.

In winning the MAC tournament, WMU beat the top three seeds — plus No. 6 Central Michigan in the semifinals — to stun the rest of the conference. WMU had a Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) of 229th.

On three days' rest, junior left-hander Keegan Akin — a possible early pick in next month's Major League Baseball draft — was outstanding, allowing one hit and a walk over six innings.

Akin (7-3) came out with WMU ahead, 12-0, and Kent State put up a seven-spot in the eighth inning to make things a tad hairy, but the ninth was uneventful as the Broncos mobbed each other on the center of the diamond in Avon.

"He's one special kid," Gernon, in his sixth season at WMU, said of Akin. "He's a thoroughbred, Kentucky Derby. It's special."

Akin was named MVP of the tournament, while teammates Grant Miller (3-for-5, two RBIs Sunday), Connor Smith (three RBIs, two runs Sunday) and pitcher Jacob Piechota made the all-tournament team.

Alex Goodwin was 3-for-3 with an RBI, and Tanner Allison and Nate Grys each added two RBIs for the Broncos on Sunday.

It was the first MAC tournament championship in Western Michigan's baseball history.

And few could've seen this one coming, given all the Broncos had dealt with this season — record-setting closer Gabe Berman was lost early in the season to a freak arm injury stemming from a cyst removal in his neck; outfielder Beau Filkins was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that he has since beaten; and Grys was lost for the first month of the season with a broken thumb, only to come back and hit a huge home run in the MAC tournament victory over No. 3 Miami.

Gernon and his team never stopped believing, though. The coach believed if WMU could just get into the winner's bracket early and line up its top-flight pitching, it would have a shot — given the senior leadership that's been on display for some time.

Western Michigan celebrates its MAC championship.

"We thought we had a good-enough club that we could make some noise," Gernon said. "I didn't have to do much. The guys just played with a chip on their shoulder. They're not just a bunch of renegades, there's a group of about five incredible seniors."

One of those seniors, Hunter Prince, had a huge hit in Game 2 of the tournament — a walk-off grand slam against Miami, after WMU had opened with a win over No. 2 Ball State.

About that chip on the shoulder — none might've been bigger than the one being lugged around lately by Piechota, a sophomore left-hander who was 9-3 in a dandy regular season, but didn't even earn second-team all-MAC. He earned a save and a win — over Central Michigan — in the MAC tournament run.

There wasn't a WMU player born the last time the Broncos made the NCAA Tournament, and their coach, Gernon, still was in college, himself, at Indiana. It's been a long wait, and now it's over. Few could've seen it coming for a team that lost its first nine games this season, and 12 of its first 13. It also had an eight-game losing streak later in the season.

"That's a long time, 1989. This is very sweet," said Gernon, who came to Western Michigan after serving as an assistant coach for two seasons at Michigan State. "It's dedicated to every single player that's played for me, and before me, that grinded it out for the brown and gold. Every assistant coach, it's for everybody.

"I love our guys. They've been running the team. I wish I could take more credit. The assistant coaches and the team have basically been driving this championship bus."

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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