Lane Community College’s baseball team was a game under .500 on April 22, losers of six straight games and so far down the standings it was unrealistic to think the Titans were going to make their first trip back to the postseason since 2006.
All of which dumbfounded coach Rob Strickland, who was convinced he had a playoff-caliber team.
“I was like, ‘You guys are way too good to go into the tank this early in the season,’ ” Strickland said. “I told them to just stay competitive and soon enough, things will turn around.”
And they certainly did. The Titans put together an 18-3 run to close out the regular season at 29-15 overall and in second place in the Northwest Athletic Association of Community College’s South Region at 20-10 to claim a spot in this week’s NWAACC tournament in Longview, Wash.
They went from being 3-7 in league to just one game behind South Region champion Chemeketa (21-9).
“I’ve never been in involved with a team that ended 18-3,” said Strickland, who has been at Lane since 1996 and has been the head coach there since the Titans’ 2004 NWAACC championship season.
“It was just an incredible run. But they knew that they were good and they knew that they were competitive.”
Now comes Lane’s next great challenge.
In the tournament’s predetermined seeding format, the Titans, as the No. 2 seed out of the South, are scheduled to open the eight-team, five-day, double-elimination competition against the No. 1 team out of the West Region.
That just happens to be Lower Columbia, also the tournament host.
The Red Devils are 36-4 overall and ranked No. 3 in the American Baseball Coaches Association Junior College Pacific Division top 25. They have won nine NWAACC titles dating back to 1970, with their most recent championship coming in 2005.
Lane and Lower Columbia will play at 7:35 p.m. Thursday in the final game of opening day.
“I definitely wanted to play in the 9:30 a.m. game,” joked Strickland, referring to the time slot reserved for the South Region champion. “Lower Columbia is really, really good and it’s going to be their field and their fans. It’s going to be tough.”
But Lane has momentum and a strong pitching staff working in its favor.
Starters Josh Orr and Chris Reed, and closer Nick Phillips were all named to the first-team all-South Region on Monday.
Orr, a freshman left-hander, will start Thursday. He is 4-4 with a 2.47 ERA and was second in the NWAACC with 86 strikeouts.
Reed, a freshman right-hander from Thurston High School, will start Friday. Reed is 6-1 with a 1.12 ERA.
Phillips led the NWAACC with 12 saves in as many chances.
Shortstop Shay Huskey and third baseman Matt Myrmo — also from Thurston — made first-team all-region. Left fielder Quinn Peck has a team-high .322 batting average with 14 extra-base hits.
“Realistically, it’s going to come down to starting pitching,” Strickland said. “If our starter can get us seven or eight innings, we can bring in our closer. But if we have to go to our bullpen in the fourth or fifth inning, we’re in trouble.”
That’s a place the Titans haven’t found themselves in for quite some time.