Reggie Rogers never won a championship with his baseball team at Morgan Park High School near Chicago. He came close once, playing on a team that finished runner-up.
When another opportunity arose for Rogers to win a championship, he wasn’t going to let it get away. He became one of many heroes who contributed to Claflin’s victory in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament.
Rogers drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning in the championship game to deliver the Panthers an 8-7 victory over Stillman. It is the first conference title in program history and sends Claflin to the NCAA regionals beginning May 19.
“We had a chance to do something that had never been done before,” junior infielder Rashad Bivens said. “We just wanted to do something special with this group. We stayed motivated.”
On paper, Claflin didn’t appear to be a championship contender. The Panthers finished third in the SIAC East and entered the tournament with a 20-27 overall record.
They weren’t exactly rolling into the tournament, either. The Panthers were 6-9 in their final 15 regular-season games.
But in the back of their collective mind, the players knew they were capable of winning a title.
“We played a lot of games this year where we had an opportunity to win,” coach James Randall said. “We just didn’t hit well with guys on base the entire season. We all felt like we were due for some big hits, and it happened in the tournament. It seemed like we found a way to get them in.”
“We knew we had a chance to win even though our record didn’t show it,” Rogers added. “Throughout the year, we knew we had a good team. We really wanted it, and we just put it all together. We played to our best potential.”
There were tangible indications that this Claflin team could make history.
The Panthers were more efficient defensively, improving their fielding percentage from .944 in 2015 to .954, which led the conference. They committed 16 fewer errors.
The offense also was stronger. Last season, Bivens was the only player to hit above .300. Seven Panthers with at least 40 at-bats hit better than .300 this season, led by Jeturi Brown’s .345.
And Claflin’s record might have been a bit deceiving. Randall said the team played a tougher schedule this season, and that, he said, prepared it for the postseason.
“We didn’t see anything we hadn’t seen before,” he said. “We played an extremely tough nonconference schedule, and I think it prepared us for some of the pitching that we saw in our conference tournament.”
Bivens said there was another benefit to playing better teams.
“Schools that may be on a different level, it’s always good to see how they do things,” he said. “You can always take something from other teams. No matter the score, I always try to take something away from playing a better or ranked team. I just look at every day as a learning experience, win or lose.”
Bivens and his teammates learned their lessons well, and come tournament time, they were ready. A different set of stars seemed to emerge every game.
In the opener of the SIAC Tournament against Miles, Rogers had four hits, an RBI and scored two runs. Bivens’ two-run double in the seventh put the Panthers up for good, and Jamal Devin came on in relief to throw six innings of three-hit, shutout ball in the 12-7 win.
Against Tuskegee in the second game, Rogers drove in four runs, Johnny Stevenson drove in three, and Lyndale Morley, who later was voted the tournament MVP, homered. The Panthers again got solid pitching as starter Keamond Eison gave up three earned runs in six innings.
“During the season we had a lot of injuries, and people had to step up,” Rogers said. “Everybody on the team is ready to play even with they don’t start. They know their role, and when their time comes, they are ready to perform.”
To win the title, Claflin had to defeat Stillman twice. The Panthers won the first game 9-6 behind Morley’s complete game and Jalen Thompson’s three RBIs.
The second game was for the championship, and Claflin would not be denied. The Panthers rallied from a 7-3, fifth-inning deficit and tied the game with three runs in the bottom of the seventh. Stevenson drove in the tying run.
Another solid pitching performance helped to keep the Panthers hopes alive. Dillon Parker shut out Stillman from the sixth through the 10th inning.
With two outs and two men on in the bottom of the 10th, Rogers came to the plate thinking about that championship. A wild pitch early in the at-bat sent the winning run to third, and Rogers was looking for a fastball.
He determined that the pitcher’s pattern was alternating fastball and curveball. He waited, got his pitch and knocked Claflin baseball into school history.
“I just tried to put the bat on the ball the best I could and tried to find a hole,” he said. “This is the best feeling we’ve ever had.”
Now comes the NCAA regionals, uncharted territory for the Panthers. They know they will face a talented team, and they know they will be an underdog.
But after their experience in the SIAC Tournament, the Panthers insist they won’t be intimidated or overwhelmed by the moment.
“Some teams will (underestimate us) and say, ‘I never heard of Claflin. They’re not ranked,’” Bivens said. “But plenty of underdogs have pulled out a win. We’re just going to focus on each other. We’re not going to worry about who we play. We’re not going to try to let the game get too big.”
(Chuck Curti is a copy editor and local college writer for Pittsburgh-Tribune Review sports. Follow him on Twitter at @CCurti_Trib)