Consistent contenders reflect on time in Lewiston

Pete Caster/TribuneIn this 2019 photo, Tennessee Wesleyan coach Billy Berry (left) talks to one of his players during batting practice before the start of the 2019 Avista NAIA World Series game at Lewis-Clark State College’s Harris Field. Berry said the environment for the Series is second to none.

If Woody Hunt had to pick a place to get away for a week, the longtime Cumberland (Tenn.) University coach might look to his mass of baseball memorabilia for ideas. He’d probably consider his three rings, and the unforgettable times he had collecting them.

Hunt, the 39-year Phoenix (formerly Bulldogs) coach, has guided 12 teams to the NAIA World Series — “several of those in Lewiston,” he said.

“And all of the championships have been there, so that makes it pretty sweet,” noted Hunt, a champion in 2004, 2010 and 2014. The American Baseball Coaches’ Association Hall of Famer first came here in 1988, “then when we got back in ’04, that was just a magical time. That’s when I fell in love with Lewiston. I always tell people, ‘My favorite town is Lewiston, Idaho.’”

Hunt’s success in this baseball-minded community isn’t paralleled by any other contemporary NAIA teams not named Lewis-Clark State. Cumberland’s three titles under Hunt are second to LCSC’s 19 — counting programs that still compete at the NAIA level.

Although the tournament has been criticized for being heavily catered toward the home-team Warriors, Hunt wouldn’t prefer it anywhere else.

“Those people have embraced our program every year,” said Hunt, whose team’s inspired 2004 title win and ensuing celebration is one of the Series’ most remembered moments, and still appears in advertising for the event. “How it feels to be a visiting team is so rewarding.

“There’s a great baseball atmosphere, and when you’re winning, it’s even better. You don’t want to go home. The combination of the people, the atmosphere, the food, the hotels, the breathtaking scenery — it’s a grand stay.”

Hunt recalls the attendances in Series of old, how scenic parks would be supplemented by only a couple hundred spectators on championship day. In Lewiston, his teams enjoy a level of celebrity status they might not get elsewhere. Hunt appreciates this Series’ pageantry.

“There’s a different feel for the game at Lewiston,” he said. “If we don’t come out as a team, I’d like to make it out there as an individual.”

And to some extent, he’s enjoyed taking part in a shared goal among visitors: beating the Warriors in their stadium. Hunt’s 10th-seeded Bulldogs did so in 2014, stunning L-C in the championship game.

“I don’t have anything against them, but that’s always one of the goals,” he teased. “Some people are critical of it, but I never was. Some coaches think it’s unfair, but you still have to win on the field, and the draw just wasn’t there at other sites. I remember in ’06 (a 5-4 loss to L-C in 11 innings), it was so loud you could hardly hear yourself think. Our players will always remember it. We want to come back so badly. It’s hard, but it’s rewarding.”

The coach of the defending Series champion shares much of the same thinking.

Billy Berry, the 12th-year coach and two-time national champion at Tennessee Wesleyan, sees LCSC’s advantage in playing host as partially offset by this stage, and the automatic bid’s disadvantage of waiting a month for the rest of the field to be set.

“We don’t really play in an environment like that throughout the year,” he said. “... It’s tough to sit as long as they do while everyone else is playing.”

The area has grown on Berry, who’s been to the Series five times. A local following of the Bulldogs has developed, and the community got behind TWU during its title run last year. It was hard not to after hearing the story of Neyland Pickel, a young child who’s been battling — and beating — cancer for much of his life, and who has become a central part of the program.

It didn’t feel like anyone else’s Series but the Bulldogs’. They made few mistakes, topped St. Thomas (Fla.) for the championship, then raised Neyland on their shoulders.

“It was a great group of kids, they were extremely talented, and there was this 8-year-old kid who tied everything together,” said Berry, whose first two teams to reach Lewiston went two-and-out before his 2012 outfit claimed the crown.

“We got to experience every piece of (the Series) then. I think (the community) kind of gained an appreciation for us in 2012, and we gained more of an appreciation for the Series.

“The longer you stay, the more support you’ll get.”

In the past decade, Berry has taken a liking to the “big-time college baseball environment,” the consistency of star-studded matchups and steady highlights “you won’t see in the regular season, that make you raise your eyebrows,” like during the Bulldogs’ engrossing defeat of the Bobcats.

“It’s the plan on Day 1 every year in the fall — get back to Lewiston,” he said.

Oklahoma City coach Denney Crabaugh was aiming for his 17th Series appearance in 33 years this season before the spread of the coronavirus forced the event’s cancellation.

OCU, which won the title in 2005 after three consecutive runner-up finishes, has become a well-known Series participant and a staunch rival of LCSC’s.

“The funny thing is, we’re more recognized in Lewiston in a lot of ways than we are in Oklahoma City,” Crabaugh said. “It makes you feel good. You tell the guys, ‘They know who you are here, they’re usually keeping up with you, and they’re waiting to see what you can come up with.’”

With experience, he’s found that winning a ring in Lewiston is validation for a program, and doing so sometimes requires a dash of fortune — a good bounce on a flare, for instance, which helped OCU win in 2005, and also resulted in a 2003 loss to the Warriors.

“Sometimes, things just have to fall your way up there,” he said. “There aren’t any gimmes, everyone’s good. Everyone’s a threat to win it, and that wasn’t always the case. ... Crazy things happen. That’s part of what makes it special.”

Crabaugh has created lasting friendships here. He salutes the tournament’s sponsor support, organization and how the community embraces programs, but would favor a neutral site a bit easier to travel to. Crabaugh’s anticipating two years from now, when LCSC has to win an Opening Round tournament to earn a Series berth.

“They’ve done the best they can do there, so until there’s another viable option, I’ll be happy going to Lewiston,” he said.

Clark may be reached at cclark@lmtribune.com, on Twitter @ClarkTrib or by phone at (208) 627-3209.

Recommended for you