THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. - In late February the California Lutheran University baseball team lost the opener of a three-game series against Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference rival Occidental, dropping the team's record to 3-4.
At that point the chances of Cal Lutheran playing in the 2017 NCAA Division III College World Series seemed pretty remote.
But the Kingsmen swept both games of the doubleheader to take a series against Occidental, igniting a streak that saw Cal Lutheran win 19 of its next 21 games.
The Kingsmen rode that momentum into the SCIAC Tournament, where they swept their way to the conference title. That was followed by four straight wins at the NCAA West Regional, earning the program its sixth trip to the NCAA Division III College World Series and the first since 1999.
The Division III World Series starts Friday in Appleton, Wisconsin. Cal Lutheran (35-10) opens the tournament Friday night against Wheaton (Mass.) College (27-15).
"Our schedule was top heavy with some good opponents so we took our lumps early," head coach Marty Slimak said. "Plus, early in the season we were trying to find the right mix, but in that Occidental series, we seemed to find the right mix.
"We got the right guys in the starting lineup and the guys on the bench all seemed to understand and accept their roles. Once that happened, things just came together and we've played good baseball since."
This is the fourth time Slimak has guided his team to the Division III World Series. In 1996 his team reached the title game before losing, while his 1999 squad finished third.
The veteran coach said each team he's taken to the World Series has its own unique abilities, but said these Kingsmen are as close a group as any team he's ever had.
"The clubhouse has really jelled and the guys are really close," Slimak said. "It's a group that likes each other and plays hard for each other. Every game different guys are stepping up and making plays to help us win ballgames.
"That was the case at the regional, and if we're going to continue to have success at the World Series, we're going to need guys to continue to come up big."
Second baseman Max Weinstein has been a catalyst for the Kingsmen with both his bat and his glove. The team's leadoff batter, Weinstein is hitting .382 this season and is leading the team in hits (73) and runs scored (35).
The junior said one of the keys to the team's success has been the ability of the players to stay loose.
"We all like to have fun," Weinstein said. "This team is young team. We're just out here having fun and being loose. It's just baseball. There's more at stake, but it's still the same game we've played our whole lives."
Senior pitcher Marshall Pautsch, the team's ace with a 9-2 record and 3.19 earned-run average, credits the players' ability to laugh at each other and themselves.
Pautsch said when you have a mix of younger and more veteran players, the younger guys can be afraid to be themselves. The seniors let everyone know they were free to do their own thing.
"We don't want anyone to shy away from their personality," said Pautsch, who is expected to start Friday night. "Even when things were not going well early on, we encouraged everyone to keep positive and be themselves.
"We did a great job of laughing and having fun, even if someone made a mistake. Like if I allowed runs, these guys were jawing at me about how I'm no good anymore. I'm mad at myself for screwing up, but then they're telling me I suck (as a joke), it helps."
While every player on the roster knows what is at stake starting Friday, third baseman Jimmy Jauregui said the team isn't putting any extra pressure on itself.
"As a group of players we have our own mentality," the senior said. "To us, it is just another game and that's how we play our best.
"Every guy in our lineup, one through nine, can get it done, and so can the other guys. It's so nice in my last year to go out this way and have a chance to play in the World Series."
After winning the West Regional on Sunday, Cal Lutheran came home for a quick few days before leaving Wednesday for Wisconsin. With so little time to prepare, Slimak said rather than trying to scramble for information about their opponents, he's told his team to focus on what it needs to do.
"We have to pitch great and play great defense," Slimak said. "It's the College World Series, so I want our kids to embrace the pressure.
"We did that in the regional. Even when we got down, the guys were confident we could get it done, and that's what happened."
Weinstein said a few days back on campus gave the team enough time to take a collective deep breath.
"The West Region is considered one of the best, so sweeping some high-caliber teams has given us some confidence to build on," Weinstein said. "We all want to see how far we can go."
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