FULLERTON, Calif.—Stanford couldn't have drawn it up any better than this.
Bring in back-to-back recruiting classes ranked in the nation's top two. Baptise young team with a brutally difficult nonconference schedule, featuring road series against three future national seeds (Rice, Vanderbilt, Texas) in the first three weeks of the season. Weather the storm. Build confidence in the second half. Arrive at a hostile regional setting with a battle-tested, extremely talented team.
Win that regional in emphatic fashion.
A day after eking out a 1-0 victory against rival and regional host Cal State Fullerton, Stanford pounded Illinois 14-2 on Sunday night to advance to super regionals, where it will face North Carolina in Chapel Hill. The Cardinal looked like an unstoppable juggernaut against the depleted Illini pitching staff, pounding out 20 hits—including laser after laser. Senior DH Ben Clowe led the way, going 4-for-4 with two doubles and a pair of two-run homers—both tattooed to left field. He doubled his season home run output entering Sunday.
"I don't think I've hit two home runs in a game since I've been in college," said Clowe, who entered the game hitting .237/.313/.359 with two homers and 10 RBIs in 131 at-bats this season. "It's nice. For a career winding down, to contribute like this, it's a good feeling."
At that point, Stanford coach Mark Marquess interjected, "It's a good Little League day."
Sophomore Stephen Piscotty, whose homer accounted for the only run of Saturday's game against Fullerton, had three hits Sunday, including an RBI double to score Clowe in the first and get the Cardinal off and running. And freshmen Lonnie Kauppila and Austin Wilson each had three hits and three RBIs, and each hit the balls on the screws all night. Wilson's majestic two-run homer to left-center in the seventh inning was the hardest-hit ball of the night.
"We can do that—it depends when you catch us," Marquess said of his team's ability to hit many balls hard. "We can swing and miss sometimes. We struck out 12 times (Saturday) night, and got four hits, and that was a lot of hits last night. Especially with a young team, we can hit the ball great one night and not the next night. They're learning."
They sure are. And they have developed into a downright scary lineup when they're locked in, as they were Sunday and in Friday's 10-3 win against Kansas State.
"It's been a lot of fun," Clowe said of the young team's development. "Coming in, I knew how much talent we had on this team across the board. As seniors, it was, how are we going to mold these guys to make sure they stay on the same page with us and get better each step along the way?"
Marquess made a point of crediting seniors like Clowe, catcher Zach Jones and righthander Danny Sandbrink (who allowed two runs in seven strong innings Sunday) with steering the ship.
"They've provided a lot of leadership throughout the year with a young team," Marquess said. "I'm really proud of our team. It was a tough schedule, but we weathered it and we're really playing our best baseball now."
Illinois found that out the hard way. But the Illini earned the respect of everyone at the regional with their run to the championship round, which included an upset of Fullerton earlier Sunday. For a team that started the season 12-21 before catching fire in the second half, there is plenty of reason for satisfaction at the end of the line.
"Looking back at it, we were struggling through the middle of the year—you wouldn't think we would get to this point," said second baseman Pete Cappetta, who capped a strong regional performance with two more hits in the championship game. "Give a lot of credit to the coaching staff and players that stuck together. We lost that first game (Friday), we could have hung our heads, but we kept battling. I'm pretty proud of the group as a whole, for sure."
"These last three weeks have been unbelievable," added outfielder Davis Hendrickson. "There's times you've got to pinch yourself. It's an unbelievable team. It was so much fun playing with these guys, because you never feel like you're out of a game—even today I didn't feel like we were out of it, because we've come back so much. I couldn't have asked for a better year."
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