By: Jacob Janower
For a week and a half in June, Omaha, Nebraska becomes the center of the baseball world when eight teams battle for glory in the College World Series.
Five members of this season’s Bourne Braves team had the opportunity that few NCAA players ever get: to compete in the CWS.
“That’s something that you dream of your whole life,” Zack Hess said. “It’s all about that work you put in during the offseason and all the peaks and the valleys that you go through during the course of the regular season then to finally get to that moment with some of your best friends is just an indescribable feeling.”
Just by simply watching the ninth inning of most LSU games in Omaha, it wasn’t hard to tell that Hess is a budding star.
A swingman more frequently used as a reliever for the Tigers in the regular season, he got the call as the closer during some of LSU’s most important games and was memorable for both his exuberant celebrations after saves and his haircut, an homage to “Wild Thing” from the Major League movies.
He finished with 11 strikeouts and three saves in seven innings during the CWS.
“When I was a little kid I got to go out there in the last years of Rosenblatt Stadium and you saw guys like Gerrit Cole and Trevor Bauer throwing and you just dream about being able to do that one day,” Hess said. “The fact that it actually came to reality is just an unbelievable feeling.”
With the Tigers losing key members of their weekend rotation, Hess will try his hand as a starter this summer with the Braves. He is intent on developing some of his secondary pitches that he plans to take back with him to LSU.“More so my changeup and also the two-seam as well,” he said. “The big thing for me is just getting that third pitch, something I can throw confidently in any count. For me that’s going to be my changeup and hopefully I get a shot to throw it out here for a few starts here in the Cape.”
As one of the newest arrivals to Bourne, Hess is still acclimating himself with his team, but one player he can compare notes about Omaha with is Andy Atwood from Oregon State.
A utility player for OSU and thus far for the Braves, Atwood was part of a Beavers team that lost to Hess and LSU just prior to the championship series.
He described the atmosphere as “electric” and “intense 24/7,” and was enamored with the large crowds at the field as well as around town of Omaha.
“It was a great experience,” Atwood said. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything. There are not many things that could even come close to creating that atmosphere again.”
So far with Bourne, Atwood has proven his value defensively and is most often seen playing center field.
The biggest thing he is taking with him to the Cape is something that was brought to his attention during the Beavers’ run.
“Always play your hardest because you never know who is watching,” Atwood said.
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The other three Braves who made the trip to Omaha this season are all from the University of Louisville.
Pitchers Nick Bennett and Bryan Hoeing and infielder Tyler Fitzgerald all contributed in various ways to the Cardinals in 2017.
Bennett was named to multiple All-Freshman teams after he posted a 3.18 ERA in 13 starts and 65 innings in his first collegiate season.
He ended up starting a game on the mound for UL in the CWS, and although it didn’t go the way he wanted it to, the event was fulfilling.
“It was hands down the coolest experience of my life,” Bennett said. “Walking out there in front of all those fans with my team and taking the mound and pitching against TCU was just a really great experience. It was probably the greatest experience of my life and I’m never going to forget that ever.”
Although Hoeing did not pitch in any of the three games that the Cardinals played, the tall right-hander has impressed with six strikeouts and just one earned run allowed in his first five innings on the Cape.
Like Hess, he grew up attending games at Rosenblatt Stadium only for his dream to come full circle this June.
“I was like ‘wow this would be pretty crazy to go there and play there,” Hoeing said. “I actually did, so it’s like a once in a lifetime opportunity. We all enjoyed it and we all loved it. Even though we didn’t do as well as we wanted to, we all had a blast there.”
Fitzgerald, a rising sophomore much like Bennett, played primarily at third base for UL but has occupied shortstop for the Braves. He started one game in the CWS and three total in the NCAA.
He called the Cardinals clinching win in Super Regionals the best moment of his life.
“We had the mentality going in that we wanted to win it all,” Fitzgerald said. “We finished a couple games short, but just the fact that we were there, we ended our season in Omaha, was a great goal that we had and we accomplished that.”
All three came to the Cape with specific intentions of improving their games to gear up for another season against the ACC.
Hoeing is looking to get more innings while Fitzgerald is working on the transition to shortstop. On the other hand, Bennett is focusing more towards an aspect than can be considered a secret weapon for pitchers.
“Before I left I talked to my coach a little bit and pickoff move is a big thing for me,” he said. “Being a lefty and having a good pickoff move is really important, so working on that and working on holding runners as well.”
Bennett and Hoeing, who were already very close much like the entire UL baseball team, drove up from Louisville to Cape Cod together and are also living with the same host family this summer.
Now that all three are continuing playing together into the summer, the familiarity that they have with each other offers additional positives.
“Just having them around, having some familiar faces, it makes it easier on things,” Fitzgerald said. “You have some people to talk to in case things are going bad, so it’s nice to have that bond for sure.”
You can contact the author via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or follow him on Twitter (@JanowerJacob).