The first of many

Tribune file photoThe 1984 Lewis-Clark State College baseball team gathers around coach Ed Cheff after winning the NAIA World Series title, the first of 19 the Warriors have won. The year before, the team won 69 times and lost in the final game of the Series.

At around this time in 1983, a determined Lewis-Clark State baseball team loaded onto a bus and drove straight from Chaparral Stadium in Lubbock, Texas, to Lewiston, only stopping for gas.

“Not one shower,” said slugging outfielder Allan Peterson, who’d just concluded his junior year. “We were in our uniforms the whole way.”

The Warriors had fielded a 69-7 powerhouse that season, one still considered among many as the most talented in program history. But it ended with a heartbreaking Series final loss against Lubbock Christian.

It’s an often-told story. A third strike was called on NAIA MVP Jim O’Dell with the bases loaded. LCSC remained championship-less, and the tournament’s runner-up for the third time — and second in a row.

“Both ’82 and ’83, we were a pitch away from the national title,” legendary Warriors coach Ed Cheff said. “It was pretty tough. Those were great ball clubs.

“Lubbock was a great program, and it wasn’t like we didn’t compete, I thought we did. But as baseball goes — a flare here, a passed ball there, and a mistake or two can cost you a game.”

Peterson recalls a “driving force” of sorts before the team hopped on the Greyhound. While he and close friend Chad Miltenberger — LCSC’s catcher — stood in anguish, watching their adversaries celebrate, he heard Cheff vow, “That’ll be us next year, I (expletive) guarantee it.”

“We rallied as a team, ‘We’re not going to lose again,’” said Peterson, a senior in 1984 who led the team with a .428 batting average, 19 home runs and 88 RBI. “We wanted to win it for him. We wanted to say, ‘Here you go, coach, now go win a bunch more.’”

That’s a good bit of foreshadowing.

Only feeding L-C’s hankering for a title: A new host site already had been announced. A year before the 1983 Series wrapped up, Cheff and former athletic director Dick Hannan got the ball rolling on making Lewiston the event’s home for the first time. Baseball coaches from around the country, and NAIA administrators, liked what they saw.

So the Warriors’ title aspirations became tiered: Win one for your coach, your teammates who hadn’t before, and for the valley.

“I remember feeling pretty tough for those seniors, and I think, for us coming back, it was fuel,” said Miltenberger, a .419 batter, Clarkston native and former celebrated assistant coach. “All year, that group was really focused. It wasn’t long before we were all on the same page. We were willing to count on each other, and we held each other accountable, which were important parts of the scheme.”

L-C had lost some notable pitchers to graduation — like ace Rich Medina — along with standouts like O’Dell and infielder Gary Balmer. Yet as was Cheff’s M.O., the Warriors reloaded almost seamlessly, adding key, versatile pieces; and further developing upperclassmen into All-American-caliber players.

And of course, they trained like their championship prospects depended on it — never walking, going star vs. star in scrimmages, chopping wood to pay for trips, running hills and coming together through the famous smoker boxing matches.

“It was all part of what we believed: developing team chemistry, facing adversity and playing through it,” said Gary Picone, LCSC’s pitching coach then who Cheff called “my partner through it all.”

“When you’re chopping wood, it doesn’t matter who’s the best pitcher. All that matters is, ‘Can you get the job done?’ It was all part of building a mentality of toughness.”

Said Rusty Harris, a freshman third baseman in 1984: “We practiced harder than we had to play in games; I think every L-C player will admit to that.”

The 1984 Warriors were every bit as good as their predecessors. They hit .354 overall, and had 18 more extra-base hits than strikeouts. The catalogue of solid position players is too extensive to spell out.

On the mound, the numbers were of similar quality. Ace Trace Czyzewski had a 12-1 record and 3.38 ERA, captaining a group that had 46 more strikeouts than it did walked batters, and only allowed 22 homers.

“We were good all the way around. When our backs were against the wall, we just answered,” said Czyzewski, who missed the 1983 Series with an injury.

Added Dan Danelson, a 6-foot-6 starter who went 6-2 with a 4.57 ERA: “Our offense was so good that, even though we didn’t score as many runs as in 1983 — which would be hard to duplicate, because they absolutely hit the crap out of the ball — if we can just keep us in games, the offense can win it. ... The players Ed had there, position-wise, were these burly guys, just tough kids, and he brought the discipline.”

After a packed fall schedule playing above their NAIA level, the Warriors went 46-12 in the spring. They beat 17 NCAA Division I opponents, going 7-1 against Bobo Brayton’s Washington State, and clipping No. 17 Hawaii at its home event in March.

“We always played unbelievable schedules, so many D-I teams,” Czyzewski said, “and we were every bit as good as all of ’em. We just had a swagger, had guys that were physically and mentally tough, and that attitude came from the top.”

In between the grueling practices and signature wins was manual labor. During the fall, the Warriors often scrimmaged in groups of three — two playing, and one constructing amenities for the upcoming Series at Harris Field. Pitcher Toby Baldwin’s father was a contractor, so he helped out with jobs demanding concrete.

“Those scrimmages were competitive; if you lost, you had to go to work,” Picone said. “I remember thinking during the tournament, just how much time that team invested in this, beyond the regular things our teams do. It really was a big thing to host it.”

To open the Series, the Warriors, perhaps playing with some anxiety brought on by hometown expectations, dropped a one-run decision to Emporia State (Kansas).

But “you hear it in pro sports all the time — sometimes it just takes a loss,” Peterson said. For years in advance, LCSC had prepared for this kind of adversity.

Sporting the same powder-blue jerseys they’d worn in Lubbock, the Warriors surged to six consecutive wins (they’d switched uniforms after the first game). They’re still the only team to compile a streak like that in the tournament.

“That was a neat way to do it, a neat mark for those kids,” Cheff said. “Fortunately, we had mature players. They respected each other, and had a good understanding of how to compete.”

L-C downed its foes by a combined score of 69-29, and beat Emporia State 11-2 in a Game 4 rematch. The Warriors had a level of fire and confidence about them during the unprecedented rally.

“Losing that first one didn’t deter us,” said Miltenberger, who others have termed the team’s “glue-guy” in those days. “I remember pregame batting practices before the following games, the group was relaxed and focused, and really had a mission to fulfill.

“We didn’t play our best game that first night, but we made sure not to do that again.”

Spoiler: They didn’t. A powerhouse lineup piled up the runs, and the rotation held firm.

“Every game, someone new stepped up; it was a team that came together, one after another,” Danelson said.

Czyzewski earned Series MVP after tossing two complete games, the latter in a runaway, 15-2 championship victory against Azusa Pacific (Calif.), which was delayed almost two hours by rain. Czyzewski spent the time throwing pitches in an annex gym, then worked the final three innings, capping it off with a strikeout into Miltenberger’s mitt.

There it was. The first of many.

“Being able to throw that last pitch of the first championship — best night of my life up to that point,” Czyzewski said. “I still can’t believe we didn’t win it (in 1983), but that team in ’84, I don’t know, everything clicked. We just couldn’t lose it.”

It was a sign of impending dominance, before a hometown crowd that would become accustomed to witnessing titles in Lewiston, and annually imposing Cheff-led teams.

“It was the perfect storm, the perfect environment,” Peterson said. “Everyone wants to say they were there when the first one was won. ... I don’t think (Cheff) would have let us lose it that year.

“The coaches, the community, so many people fed into it. Everything kind of snowballed.”

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

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