It isn’t where you start but where you finish that makes a difference. There is no better proof of that than the University of La Verne baseball team.
At no point during the regular season were the Leopards ever first in the SCIAC. They didn’t move into the top spot until the final day of the regular season when they swept Pomona-Pitzer and University of Redlands lost twice to Claremont-Mudd-Scripps.
But it will be coach Scott Winterburn’s team representing the SCIAC in the six-team Division III West Region Tournament that starts today at McMurry University in Abilene, Tex.
The Leopards (25-14-1) open play at 10 a.m. against Southern Califorinia rival Chapman (35-3), the nation’s top-ranked team.
That will be one of three games on tap with the others pitting George Fox (28-12) against Trinity, Tex. (32-13) and Cal State East Bay (26-14) against host McMurray (29-17).
La Verne’s finish this season was the opposite of last season when the Leopards were on top only to drop a spot after falling to Whittier in extra innings in the final game of the season.
“Last year we pretty much led it the entire way. This year we never led,” Winterburn said. “Go figure. That’s the thing I find most ironic.”
Only a fantastic finish put the Leopards in position to have a chance. They won their last eight games and 13 of their last 14 conference games.
Winterburn said his team didn’t get too wrapped up in where it was in the standings.
“We weren’t worried about how far behind we were,” he said. “We just wanted to play better baseball. Then the teams ahead of us starting losing and we had a chance again. “
Today’s foe is not an unfamiliar one. The Leopards played the Panthers in a three-game non-conference series and lost all three – 4-0, 4-2 and 11-5.
It will be La Verne’s first postseason appearance since 2005 when the Leopards were eliminated by Chapman which was hosting the tournament.
Pitchers Ryan Rose and Jimmy Wilfong and outfielder Brandon Mikkelson, all seniors, are the main holdovers from that team.
Winterburn said sophomore Tim Jolly (5-3, 4.36), a product of Damien High School, would be the likely starter. He went the first game against Chapman in April, giving up just two hits and three runs in a game that was scoreless until the fifth.
Rose (7-3, 6.38) and junior Jesse Sweet (5-3, 3.88) are the other starters. Wilfong (5-2, 2.05) has a team-high 20 appearances, 17 of those out of the bullpen.
The offense is led by senior designated hitter Scott Marcus who hit .375, led the conference in RBI (62) and total bases (125) and was second in runs scored (51) and home runs (13).
Among the other veterans are second baseman Trevor Boucher (.364, 31 RBI) and shortstop Jack Mehl (.369, 58 runs).
The Panthers, who are looking for their fourth straight regional title, have been ranked No. 1 the entire season. Their losses were to Pomona-Pitzer, Redlands and McMurry.
Chapman is hitting .357 as a team (14th nationally) and averaging 9.1 runs a game led by designated hitter Stuart Hyman (.400), third baseman Tristan Phillips (.426) and outfielder Mike Vass (.395, 43 runs, 42 RBI).
“Our guys have hung in there all year,” Winterburn said. “We have some momentum and we have nothing to lose because no one expected us to get here.