By IAN WILSON
It was a fairytale ending.
After a plucky cast of characters was assembled, they set out on an epic journey. At several points during this obstacle-laden trek, it seemed like all hope was lost and the battle was done.
But every fairytale needs a happy ending. A starry-eyed hero must emerge at just the right time to strike an unexpected and lethal blow to the enemy. A valiant and trusted companion must struggle through adversity to ensure his lovable mates win the fight.
And in the end, a prince and princess must bring new hope to the land.
If it sounds far-fetched, well – all creative license aside – we did tell you it was a fairytale ending. And some Alberta characters played a leading role in this story. So sit back and enjoy.
ONCE UPON A TIME
Our tale begins in Tyler, Texas, where the university baseball team – the Patriots – plays in the American Southwest Conference (ASC) of NCAA Division III.
The Patriots had won conference titles before, but they had never ruled over the entire kingdom. This year, however, was different.
After the first six games of the season, the University of Texas (UT) at Tyler had a 3-3 record. Eighteen games into the season, they had 10 wins and 8 losses. In mid-March, nothing looked particularly special about this team. But the winning streaks started to kick in and the number of victories began to accumulate. Heading into the ASC championship, the Patriots had put together a 26-14 season.
“Throughout the season, we saw flashes of the potential greatness that this team would have, but we wouldn’t always put together the entire performance,” admitted Patriot first baseman Alex Bishop, who was born and raised in Calgary.
UT Tyler stumbled in the ASC championship. A 3-1 loss to Concordia in the final game of the tournament eliminated them from play and it appeared their season was over. A conference title would have guaranteed that the Patriots advance to the regional championship in Sauget, Illinois. The loss meant they required an at-large bid – or an invitation – to the regional tournament, which they ultimately did receive.
“Once we were giving a second chance from the NCAA by receiving an at-large bid, from there I knew we would come back with fire like no one has seen before,” said relief pitcher Chris Stodolka, a Lethbridge product who made his way to UT Tyler after graduating from the Prairie Baseball Academy.
“I saw this fire at our first practice back after we handed in all our stuff, thinking it was all over. At this practice there was more life in every single one of us – it was something I had ever seen before.”
MIRROR, MIRROR, ON THE WALL
With new life and new purpose, the Patriots were off to Illinois, determined to vanquish more of their foes.
A three-run home run from Bishop – who finished the season with nine home runs, 55 RBI and a .311 batting average through 56 games – helped the team claim an 8-5 win over Aurora University in the tournament opener. But UT Tyler lost the next game to top-seeded Wisconsin-Whitewater and that set the stage for five straight must-win games.
“To be honest, there wasn’t a time as a team where we had any downs in the postseason. That’s because we were already dead,” said Stodolka, who racked up 30 strikeouts over 20.1 innings of work, and collected three saves during the year.
“Our motto was ‘hashtag zombie.’ How do you kill something that’s already dead? It gave us nothing to lose and with that motto we played relaxed baseball and knew that no team could stand in our way.”
The Patriots prevailed during the next five elimination games, a stretch that included a rematch victory over Wisconsin-Whitewater, and a four-run 9th inning, come-from-behind win over Rhodes to punch their ticket to the Division III College World Series.
“I think what everyone saw in the regional was just how special this group was, and that nobody could beat us when we played that way,” said Bishop, a Vauxhall Academy of Baseball grad – and former Lethbridge Bulls teammate of Stodolka’s – who hopes to one day work as an engineer at NASA.
“When we were faced with elimination, we didn’t hang our heads at all. Knowing that we were given a second chance to compete, we played relaxed, never gave up and always knew that we were in the fight.”
THE FAIREST OF THEM ALL
After they arrived in Appleton, Wisconsin at the end of May for the national championship games, the Patriots came out strong, winning their first two games.
Their win streak, however, was snapped with a 6-1 loss to Randolph-Macon College. That meant UT Tyler was playing in another must-win game and they would need to defeat Randolph-Macon to make it to the World Series championship final.
They did win and they did it in dramatic fashion. During an 8-6 victory, the Patriots scored all of their runs with two outs. Bishop’s bat was clutch again (2-for-5 with one run and 3 RBI) and Stodolka pitched 3.1 innings to pick up the win.
From there, it was on to a best-of-three matchup against Texas-Lutheran University. With one last dragon – or in this case, a pack of Bulldogs – left to slay, the Patriots pounced early, taking the first game by an 8-1 score.
In the second game, Bishop got an opportunity that ball players dream about. During the bottom of the 7th inning of a 4-4 tie, the 6-foot-3 senior stepped into the batter’s box with a runner on first base. Two curveballs later, the count was two balls and no strikes.
“I knew he would have to throw a fastball to get back into the count. At that point my mindset became, ‘see a fastball over the plate to drive, and don’t be early.’ When I saw the pitch and location, I just saw it the whole way and put my best swing on it,” Bishop told Alberta Dugout Stories.
His best swing had the distance but it was threatening to slice into foul territory.
“I was very nervous that it was going to hook just foul, but luckily enough the wind was blowing just right to keep it fair and it hit the foul pole. It was absolutely the best hit of my entire career,” said Bishop, who stayed in Texas after the school year to seek work.
With that, UT Tyler opened the drawbridge. It was almost time to storm the castle.
The Patriots would score five runs in that 7th inning and the final box score would show a 9-6 win.
“It was just so crazy when the final out was made. As soon as the ball was popped up in the air, I felt a rush of emotion and goosebumps,” recalled Bishop.
“I just couldn’t believe that was it, and that we had done it. It was just pure happiness that I felt.”
It didn’t take long for Bishop to crash onto the victory pile on the pitcher’s mound but Stodolka had to make the dash from the bullpen.
“I had so stinking far to run from the ‘pen to get on the dog pile. I was running as fast as I could and all I was saying was ‘Praise the Lord, we did it,” said the right-handed pitcher, who returned home to a new greeting from his dad.
“To this day, my father still shouts as I enter the room: ‘THERE IS A CHAMPION IN THE HOUSE!'”
THE PRINCESS BRIDE
Alas, our magical tale does not end there.
After the celebration on the field settled down, a love story had emerged.
Patriot outfielder Ben Romines found his long-time girlfriend, Madi Blankenship, and dropped to one knee as teammates, friends and family watched from the stands. Romines then asked for his fair maiden’s hand in marriage.
She said ‘yes.’
“That was unbelievable … he had told a group of us guys the night before that if we won it, his mom had brought the ring, and he was going to propose,” said Bishop.
And they lived happily ever after.