One Tough Team: Blue Devils overcame plenty of hardships to get to Nationals

Published 8:57 pm Friday, May 21, 2010

The way the Blue Devils closed their regular season, the NJCAA Division III baseball World Series had to be the furthest thing from their minds.

They had just been swept by Dakota County and Rochester, two of the teams they would face at the Regional tournament and they had just lost two of their best players — Brian Voigt and Shawn Pape — to injuries.

But as fate would have it, RCC won four straight games at the Regional Tournament and they’re enjoying their second straight trip to the national tournament this weekend in Tyler, Tex.

Their reasons for advancing range from a laid back underdog attitude to a total team effort, but RCC freshman outfielder Renee Araujo probably summed up everyone’s feelings best.

“All we did this season and everything that was put together is in memory of Christopher Gonzalez,” said Araujo.

A welcome start

Christopher Gonzalez came all the way from Coral Park High School in Miami, Fla. to Austin, Minn. with one thing on his mind — he wanted to get back to the World Series.

The freshman shortstop turned some heads right away on his signing day when he boldly told RCC head coach Scott Koenigs that he was coming to bring the Blue Devils back to the World Series.

He didn’t disappoint when he played fall ball and batted .520 in the inter-squad games, while also showing strong leadership skills.

“He was a coach’s dream,” Koenigs said. “He came here and his sole purpose was to get us back to the world series and being the best player he could be. He was going to be a great player for us. He was always the guy chattering down to the last out, even if his team was down.”

Gonzalez had planned on playing at RCC for one season and then he would transfer to a four-year school, but he quickly fit in amongst his teammates while living in the dorms near campus.

“He was a great guy,” RCC pitcher and shortstop Brian Voigt said. “There wasn’t a single guy who wanted to play baseball more than him and losing him hurts a lot. But it gives us motivation to play the game like he did, all out, all the time.”

Besides his playing ability, Gonzalez also made plenty of friends on his new team.

“He was a great teammate and there wasn’t anybody who did not like him. He was a great guy with a great sense of humor,” RCC second baseman Winston Smith said.

It all goes wrong

Gonzalez passed away in a car accident while giving fellow students rides to the airport over winter break.

It was a shock felt instantly amongst the Riverland squad.

“It was tough for our guys,” Koenigs said. “They were very shaken because they were close. When you’re at the dorms, you’re around each other 24-7. Our team went through some tough times together and it’s made us stronger.”

When spring came around, the Blue Devils immediately dedicated the season to Gonzalez, who was to wear No. 9 on his jersey.

The entire RCC team wore No. 9 wristbands on game days and his jersey hung in the dugout throughout the season, thanks to outfielder Kyle Young, who had the responsibility putting it on display.

Injuries pile up

While Riverland was confident with its chances of getting back to the Junior College World Series, it wasn’t long before doubt began to creep in.

Pitcher Ryan Palmer and catcher Derek Emanuel, who both played considerably as freshman suffered season ending injuries early on.

As the year went on, the Blue Devils lost Kyal Williams, who played catcher, third base, and pitcher, to injury for a stretch of about 12 games, and the Blue Devils No. 2 pitcher Mitch Jaeger made just six starts as his shoulder caused him to need 10 days of rest to pitch.

Williams and Emanuel’s injuries had the biggest effect on Derek Hahn, a sophomore from Lakeville North. Hahn had to catch both games of doubleheaders all season and he caught all four games of the Regionals.

“It’s been really tough on the legs and I hit my thumb on a pitch, so now it hurts whenever I throw,” Hahn said.

Throw in Pape’s bout with mono-nucleosis and Voigt’s hamstring pull right before the tournament and things were looking bleak when RCC headed for St. Cloud last week.

The big turnaround

It all changed in St. Cloud for Riverland.

The Blue Devils opened the tourney with a 10-5 win over Rochester, they rallied to beat Dakota County 5-4 on a walk-off single by Araujo, and they beat Ridgewater twice to win the Region.

When they piled up with the No. 9 jersey in the middle of the field with after clinching the Region, even some of RCC’s most skeptic players couldn’t help but feel a bit nostalgic about Gonzalez.

“To be honest, I don’t really believe in too much of that stuff,” Hahn said. “But last weekend there were so many times where we got hops. Kyle Young hit a routine ground ball and all of the sudden it just shoots up 30 feet into the air and over the second basemen’s head to drive in two runs. We also had a play at the plate, where I don’t know how I hung onto the ball. It’s plays like that where you kind of think about that kind of stuff and it’s crazy.”

Koenigs said he noticed the same trend.

“I think we had a little help last weekend. We got the breaks and it was like we had an angel there with us,” Koenigs said. “All season we didn’t get the bloops and when we made mistakes on the bases, we were always out. Last weekend when we got caught on the bases, we scored runs.”

The trip to the World Series was especially exciting for Araujo, who is from Houston Tex. He will play in front of his family this weekend and he couldn’t be happier about it.

“It’s very exciting and I’m just happy that they get the chance to see me play college baseball,” he said. “It’s unreal that I’ll finally get the chance to play in front of my family and it’ll be a very wonderful experience.”