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LINCOLN â€“ When Dr. Edward M. Matejkovic chose to hire Lincoln's own Jad Prachniak to skipper his West Chester University baseball squad last July, he knew he was putting a lot of faith in an unknown product.
After all, up to that point, Prachniak had served just one year as an undergraduate assistant coach at the University of Rhode Island in 2005, then served as Frank Leoni's pitching coach/recruiting coordinator at the College of William & Mary the following five years.
Prachniak claimed he knew little about the Golden Rams' baseball program, except that it had finished the 2011 campaign 22-21 overall and 10-14 in the Eastern Division of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference.
With that latter mark, WCU finished in the division cellar.
The Golden Rams, however, immediately took to Prachniak's personality and dedication to their program, and rewarded themselves, their school and their new mentor â€“ incredibly â€“ with the NCAA Division II College World Series championship.
They did that with a stunning 9-0 victory over Delta State of Mississippi in the championship final held in Cary, N.C. on Saturday, June 2.
When asked if he could believe what this spring had brought to him and his new players, not just the D-II World Series crown and an amazing 46-10 overall record, Prachniak chuckled, then stated simply, â€śWell, yes and no.
â€śThe whole thing was so surreal,â€ť he explained when reached on his cell phone Thursday afternoon. â€śThe whole experience (of attending the tournament) blew our minds. You get so caught up in taking it just one game at a time, you don't think about the big picture until it's over.
â€śI realized as the season progressed that we had a pretty good baseball team,â€ť he added. â€śWe got off to a great start, (as we were) 25-1 through our first 26 games, but â€“ I've got to be honest with you â€“ we began to struggle at about mid-season. At one point, in a stretch of 14 conference games, we were 6-8.
â€śAll I can say is that the way they responded was so special. There was no panic, and they stayed the course. They kept practicing hard and playing hard. No one was trying to do too much; they just kept plugging away at it.â€ť
After earning the conference crown, WCU cruised through the NCAA Division II Regional Tournament to qualify for the World Series, held in Cary (just outside of Raleigh, N.C.), then snared its first tilt with a 4-0 triumph over Chico State of Chico, Calif. on May 26.
Through the remainder of the tourney, the Golden Rams crushed Southern New Hampshire, 13-7, and survived a 2-1 nail-biter over Catawba University (of North Carolina) before earning a bid to the final.
Against Delta State, 6-5 sophomore righty Joe Gunkel, who hails from Hershey, scattered only five hits and three walks while fanning one in a complete-game outing, and WCU eventually celebrated that 9-0 win. He previously had manufactured a no-hitter through eight full frames in the victory over Chico State, but had to settle for a one-hitter.
â€śHe pitched to contact, and threw the ball super,â€ť Prachniak said of Gunkel's performance in the title tilt. â€śHe spotted his fastball really well, on both sides of the plate, and he mixed in his breaking ball, which acts more like a curve. He's super-competitive, and composed as well.â€ť
The best part, he noted, was that his whole family attended, including brother Jerzy and sister Janna (all stellar athletes at Lincoln High), as well as parents Paul and Gail.
â€śWhen I first got the job, I was so excited to get started, I didn't think about anything but throwing myself into it,â€ť Prachniak said. â€śHonestly, it was the quickest nine months to a year of my life. Everything was new, so I worked really hard to learn about the team, the school, the league, the competition.
â€śI knew the conference record had been 10-14, overall 22-21,â€ť he continued. â€śI remember meeting with the guys, and â€“ from a baseball standpoint â€“ I had heard I'd be inheriting some pretty good athletes. When I got the chance to see them, I noticed that they could flat-out play.â€ť
Prachniak was asked how it felt to call himself the head coach of the reigning Division II College World Series champions; the answer from the modest, low-key, down-home former Lion was hardly surprising.
â€śI don't think I'll ever refer to myself as that; it's not my style,â€ť he offered. â€śMy favorite thing through this whole experience? My happiness for the entire team and the school. They busted their butts this year, and worked and played hard throughout. They were very cohesive on and off the field.
â€śI'd say they showed their talent, but there were no egos involved. I had a bunch of humble kids playing hard regardless of the game situation. They could be up five or down five, and you always saw the same effort from them. They focused on every single pitch.
â€śWhen we got together for 'Fall Ball' last September and October â€“ we played about 20 intra-squad games â€“ I felt like we had a balanced ball club,â€ť he added. â€śI thought we'd be able to score some runs, and we had good defenders all over the field.
â€śTo win it all? Like I said, the feeling is so surreal. I know the guys feel the same way.â€ť
If Prachniak is â€śbummedâ€ť about one thing, it's that he'll have to replace eight departing seniors, including three hurlers, his catcher (Reid Pulford, a Seton Hall transfer), two middle infielders and a pair of outfielders.
One includes second baseman Joe Wendle, who just recently became a Cleveland Indians' sixth-round draft pick.
â€śI'm going to miss those guys, but I still feel like I have a good nucleus coming back,â€ť the head coach stated.
â€śI've heard from a lot of my old teammates, both at URI and Lincoln,â€ť he added. â€śThey were very supportive, and told me they were thrilled for me. You know, it's been a unique mix of people I've heard from, including people I've coached with and against, former players, etc. I also heard from Frank Leoni.
â€śAs far as I'm concerned, Frank was instrumental in helping me become a coach. He gave me the opportunity to play at the collegiate level (at URI), and he also gave me my first chance to coach with him at William & Mary. I'm very thankful and grateful to him for those opportunities. I wouldn't be here without him.â€ť