‘Pretty exciting’: Revived Western Michigan treasures NCAA bid
Keegan Akin had a few minutes to talk. He was running late for a haircut. He has to look good for the cameras, after all.
Yes, Western Michigan has reached the big-time in college baseball -- with its first NCAA tournament appearance since 1989.
"It's pretty exciting," Akin said Monday afternoon. "After the start we had, just to finish the season strong is always a plus."
Western Michigan (22-32), with a shocking run to the Mid-American Conference tournament championship, will open play at regional host Louisville (47-12) at 6 p.m. Friday. Big Ten tournament champion Ohio State and Wright State are also in the regional, which is double-elimination.
Western Michigan lost its first nine games of the season, and 12 of its first 13.
There were injuries, but the Broncos still didn't understand what was going on.
"The older guys could see it in fall ball -- we've got the talent," said Akin, a junior left-handed pitcher who was MVP of the MAC tournament and is in line to start against Louisville.
"No way that should be happening with the talent we have. It was on a lot of the older guys to keep the younger guys confident.
"We started to pick it up halfway through the year."
The turning point, Akin suggests, was a three-game sweep against Bowling Green in mid-March. That kicked off a stretch of six victories in seven games.
Still, the Broncos had an eight-game losing streak later in the season, and entered the MAC tournament as the No. 7 seed.
No seventh seed had ever won the MAC tournament until Sunday, when Western Michigan trounced Kent State, 12-7. In its run, the Broncos beat the Nos. 1, 2, 3 and 6 seeds, including a big triumph over rival Central Michigan.
That led to a viewing party on campus Monday, a holiday that didn't keep the school president, athletic director and even basketball coach Steve Hawkins from coming in to be with the baseball team.
"They were just relishing the moment," said Western Michigan coach Billy Gernon, who also got a congratulatory text from Fred Decker, the longtime Broncos coach who was at the helm the last time the program made an NCAA tournament. "It's very gratifying."
This is Gernon's sixth season as Western Michigan's head coach, after nine seasons at IPFW.
Between stints, he spent two seasons on the baseball staff at Michigan State under Jake Boss Jr.
It was at Michigan State, Gernon said, where his coaching career took on a new look, a positive look.
"He kind of helped me redirect my career, and I will forever be grateful for that," Gernon said of Boss.
"I was fortunate to be there for two years."
As it turns out, Western Michigan will be the state's only representative in the NCAA tournament. Michigan found itself on the wrong side of the bubble, and Michigan State finished even farther out, because of a poor RPI.
Gernon said he hadn't thought about carrying the banner for the entire state. He had little to say about that.
Which is weird, really -- Gernon always has something to say. He admits he collects inspirational quotes.
"There's a saying -- people build great foundations on the bricks that have been thrown at them," Gernon said. "There were a lot of bricks thrown at us. Nothing that was cruel -- it was just life's adversity that was being thrown at us.
"Now we're standing on top of them rather than being buried underneath them."
The regional is an interesting one, at least for a back story.
Louisville is ranked No. 7 in the final Baseball America top 25, the same ranking it had in 2014 when Western Michigan beat the Cardinals for one of the biggest wins in program history.
Interestingly, that was Akin's first start, and record-setting closer Gabe Berman -- out with injury -- finished off a 4-2 win.
Ohio State also is coached by Greg Beals, a good friend of Gernon's from Beals' days coaching at Ball State. Beals was texting congratulations to Gernon at 2 a.m. Monday.
Now, they could square off in the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA tournament. What a dream. And, not that long ago, what a pipe dream. Or was it?
"We knew that we were good enough," said Akin, who's likely to be an early-round pick in next month's Major League Baseball draft.
Of the bad start, he said, "It was more of a fluke."
Ohio State (43-18) plays Wright State (44-15) at 2 p.m. Friday.
Game 1: Wright State (44-15) vs. Ohio State (43-18), 2 p.m.
Game 2: Western Michigan (22-32) at Louisville (47-12), 6 p.m.
Game 3: Game 1 loser vs. Game 2 loser, noon
Game 4: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 5: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 loser, noon
Game 6: Game 4 winner vs. Game 5 winner, 4 p.m.
Game 7 (if necessary): Game 6 rematch, 4 p.m.