Wittenberg seeks first NCAC baseball title this week in Chillicothe

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Wittenberg baseball coach Brian McGee interview: May 10, 2022

Brian McGee has led the program to first back-to-back 20-win seasons since 2012-13

Brian McGee got a call in the summer of 2016 about the head baseball coaching job at Wittenberg University. He was the head coach at Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, at the time but happened to be recruiting in Columbus when he took a call from Matt Croci, Wittenberg’s men’s basketball coach, who had just got a head coaching job himself that summer.

All McGee knew about Wittenberg baseball at the time was that it wasn’t in the spotlight as much as school’s tradition-rich football and men’s basketball programs. His uncle went to seminary school at Wittenberg so he knew of its academic reputation. Coaching at the NCAA Division II level, he didn’t know much about the potential of the baseball program.

“When I got the call from Croci,” McGee said, “I called my wife and said, ‘Wittenberg called. I think I’ll take a look at it.’ So I finished up the recruiting that I had planned for that day, and I drove over to campus before I even contacted Wittenberg back to take a look, and I was like, ‘This campus is pretty nice.’”

McGee asked a random student walking on by on a near-empty campus in the middle of summer where the baseball field was located and then drove over to see Carleton Davidson Stadium.

Upon seeing that facility, McGee thought, “Wow, you can win here. I could do something with this.”

Almost six years later, McGee is doing just that. Wittenberg (27-10) earned a spot in the North Coast Athletic Conference tournament for the first time since 2011 and will start play at 8 p.m. Friday at V.A. Memorial Stadium in Chillicothe. As the No. 2 seed, Wittenberg will play No. 3 seed Wooster (27-12, 4-6) in the first round of the double-elimination tournament. The Tigers finished 14-4 in the NCAC. That’s their best league mark since 1995.

Wooster, a Division III power that was the national runner-up in 2009, has won 13 NCAC tournament championships. Wittenberg joined the NCAC in the 1990 season and has never won the tournament or regular-season championship. The Tigers haven’t won a NCAC tournament game since 2006 when they beat Wooster in the first round but then lost back-to-back games to Wooster by an 18-3 margin.

Once again this year, the road starts with Wooster.

“Wooster has been traditionally in our conference and nationally in Division III the big dogs of Ohio,” McGee said. “There’s no better dragon to slay, I guess you could say. You want to earn it the right way, going through the right teams.”

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No. 1 seed Denison (30-8, 16-2), which has won the last two tournaments (2019 and 2021) and No. 4 DePauw (21-15, 12-6), which won its only tournament championship in 2014, play in the first game Thursday.

Wittenberg split two games with each of the other three semifinalists in the regular-season, so this should be a wide-open tournament. Just getting to the event was the goal at the beginning of the season for Wittenberg.

“We kind of set the bar as low as we possibly could,” McGee said, “in terms of taking it one game at a time, one pitch at a time and not worrying about who we’re playing. We talked a lot this year about playing against the game, not the opponent, not trying to look too far ahead and worrying about what other teams are doing, just kind of controlling our own.”

Wittenberg just missed qualifying for the tournament in 2021, finishing 21-11 overall and 10-6 in the NCAC. The expectations were high this season, but McGee didn’t talk about winning the tournament.

“We push the guys, and we want to win at high level,” he said, “but that first step for us was, ‘Hey, let’s get this this program back to playoff postseason baseball. And once we get there, then we can start talking about the next step.’”

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Wittenberg's Austin Luther pitches during a game at Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield in 2022. Photo courtesy of Wittenberg

Wittenberg's Austin Luther pitches during a game at Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield in 2022. Photo courtesy of Wittenberg

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Wittenberg's Austin Luther pitches during a game at Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield in 2022. Photo courtesy of Wittenberg

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Wittenberg's Jack Siefert hits during a game at Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield in 2022. Photo courtesy of Wittenberg

Wittenberg's Jack Siefert hits during a game at Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield in 2022. Photo courtesy of Wittenberg

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Wittenberg's Jack Siefert hits during a game at Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield in 2022. Photo courtesy of Wittenberg

This team has won by getting contributions in every phase of the game.

“I think the strength of the team is the guys just play really hard,” McGee said. “They play as a team. They fight for one another. They fight for this coaching staff, and we all believe in each other. So I think first and foremost, the culture of the program is really strong. The expectations are high, and the guys want to live up to that. I think it takes more than talent a lot of times just to win. The guys have the faith and the work ethic, which drives championship programs. We’ve got a very balanced team, something that this coaching staff has talked about a lot. We’re not weak in any one area. We might not be the best in the conference in any one specific area, but we’re one of the best in pitching, defense and hitting.”

Here are some of the standouts:

• Shortstop Chase Wisner leads the team in hits (56) and batting average (.373).

• First baseman Jack Siefert and right fielder Conor O’Malley are tied for the team lead and tied for eighth in the NCAC in RBIs (37). Siefert has a team-best six home runs. O’Malley has five.

“Jack’s probably the heart and soul of our team,” McGee said. “He brings a ton of energy. When he goes the offense goes all around him.”

• Left fielder Gabe Stacy leads the team with 24 stolen bases, fourth most in the NCAC, and has the team’s best on-base percentage (.474).

“I think he’s one of the best leadoff guys in the region,” McGee said. “I don’t have the statistics on it, but I really truly believe the guy’s got to be hitting over .500 in the first at-bat of the game. He’s the catalyst for our offense. He can get things going with a bang. The first game of the season, he had a 14-pitch at-bat, and then he hit a home run. That’s how we started the season.”

• Matt Moore has the highest-average (.354) among catchers in the NCAC.

• Austin Luther, who will start Thursday against Wooster, is the team’s ace. He’s 5-0 with a 2.48 ERA, the fifth best in the NCAC, in 11 starts with 56 strikeouts in 61 2/3 innings.

• Justin Maynard (8-1, 4.31 ERA) leads the team in victories. He has made 15 relief appearances and has three saves.

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Siefert, Stacy and designated hitter Mason Davis are all fifth-year graduate students who took advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA gave all athletes because of the pandemic year of 2020-21. They were part of McGee’s first recruiting class in 2018. He didn’t have any of his own recruits on his first team in the 2017-18 academic year because he took over the program just before school started in 2017.

“I’m really happy for those guys because they came back to see this thing through,” McGee said.

That goes for McGee, too. His excitement about the opportunity to coach Wittenberg increased when he interviewed and learned about the school’s plans for a new indoor facility, The Steemer, which wouldn’t open for another three years. Now his team can do almost anything on the turf in a controlled environment all winter. There’s room for long tossing for the pitchers. The fielders can take grounders on a surface that is very much like what they play on many times throughout the season. There are four batting cages.

The Steemer has made the program better. Wittenberg has won 20 games in a row in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2012-13. McGee, a 2000 Tiffin University graduate, picked up his 100th victory at Wittenberg in the final game of the regular season Sunday, an 8-1 victory against Ohio Wesleyan.

“When I took the job, I knew it was a program that was struggling a little bit and needed to rebound from what it was in the ‘90s,” McGee said. “There had been some time since the program had been on the pedestal of Division III. But that’s really one of the things that attracted me to the job. I like a good challenge. I like rebuilding programs. Every program that I’ve worked at thus far, I’ve been able to do that. I was really interested in the job for that reason, too. But I also knew of all the success that Wittenberg has had athletically: football and basketball and volleyball and golf. I knew that there was a lot of potential for the program to rise quickly.”

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Wittenberg's Brian McGee coaches during a game at Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield in 2022. Photo courtesy of Wittenberg

Wittenberg's Brian McGee coaches during a game at Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield in 2022. Photo courtesy of Wittenberg

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Wittenberg's Brian McGee coaches during a game at Carleton Davidson Stadium in Springfield in 2022. Photo courtesy of Wittenberg

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