Eagles want to stay hot

When a team is hot, the last thing it wants to do is stop playing.

But Concordia University's baseball team finds itself trying to keep the flame lit as it pushes through a 12-day stretch without playing a game and prepares to play in the Avista-NAIA World Series starting Friday.

While all 10 teams that will participate in the World Series are on a roll to one degree or another, it would be difficult to match what the Eagles have done in the last six weeks.

Concordia has won 20 of its last 22, including eight straight, and is coming off a title in the NAIA Opening Round — Riverside Bracket last weekend. It took two consecutive victories over Golden State Athletic Conference foe Cal Baptist to get there, but the Eagles have landed safely in the NAIA World Series for the second time in school history.

Concordia has put it together in all areas of the game — pitching, hitting and defense — and has not relied on one aspect of their game to thrive. The question facing Concordia head coach Mike Grahovac now is how to sustain it through the layoff.

Grahovac gave his players three days off after winning the Riverside bracket on May 14, then worked on defense Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday and Saturday, they played full-tilt intra-squad games.

"They were going at it pretty hard," Grahovac said. "We had our pitchers going against our hitters, 100%t. We like to make it as game-like as possible.

"This is an older group. They got their time off, they went through the graduation stuff, and now it's time to focus on baseball."

Concordia (38-18) is seeded No. 9 and will face No. 8 Faulkner (Ala.) at 8:30 a.m. Friday when the double-elimination tournament gets underway. If the Eagles win, they will play top-seed Embry-Riddle (Fla.), which is 50-9 this season.

"You go online and look at the stats and see what type of team they are," Grahovac said of his scouting Faulkner (48-13) and the other teams in the tournament. "All 10 teams are good. Faulkner is from a different part of the country so they play a different type of baseball. In Southern California, it's a faster game.

"But I don't care who we play. They've got to face us. Our whole philosophy all year is we don't care who we play, we're going to do what we do. We'll steal bases, strike guys out, we'll go out there and play baseball, and have fun playing baseball."

While the Eagles have gotten contributions from hitters up and down the lineup, no one is as hot as designated hitter Bryan Nicholson. In winning all seven games in the GSAC tournament and the Riverside bracket, the Eagles leaned on Nicholson, who hit .583 (14 for 24) with two homers, 15 RBIs and 11 runs scored during those postseason games.

The 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior from Pacifica High in Garden Grove, is having a remarkable season. Overall, Nicholson leads the team with nine homers, 61 RBIs and a .423 batting average despite missing 10 games recovering from facial fractures after being hit in the face with a pitch.

"He works extremely hard and is always putting in extra work," Grahovac said. "There's a lot of excitement with the guys right now. We don't need to find ways for motivation. We've run practice hard all year, guys diving in the dirt and creating that game-like atmosphere.

"If the pitchers do well against the hitters, great, and if the hitters do well against the pitchers, that's great too. They have a friendly competition and it's fun to watch as a coach."

Blake Harrison has been the Eagles' top starter this season, going 7-1 with a 2.67 earned-run average in 14 starts, but Grahovac will hold Harrison back to start the second game of the tournament.

That game would either be an elimination game, if Concordia loses its first round game, or would come against top-seed Embry-Riddle in the championship bracket.

Dean Persinger, who is 6-4 with a 3.82 ERA in 13 games (10 starts), will start the World Series opener on Friday.

Being the No. 9 seed, Grahovac said, does not bother him. "It doesn't matter," he said. "We're here now."

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