West Chester’s Gunkle Propels Rams to First D-II Title

CARY, N.C.—After finishing in last place in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference East a year ago, first-year Coach Jad Prachniak led West Chester to its first Division II World Series title on Saturday night, pummeling Delta State 9-0 on an exclamation point to culminate a 12-game winning-streak.

When Prachniak, who had previously been the pitching coach at William & Mary, was asked how he planned on following up such a remarkable feat in his first season at the helm, the 30-year-old facetiously said, “I’m going to retire. It was a good run and there’s not much left.”

Winners of 15 of its last 16 postseason games, the Golden Rams (46-10) came to the USA Baseball Complex with plenty of momentum. From the first pitch of their opening round game, they were the best team in the tournament. Led by sophomore righthander Joe Gunkle (10-1, 2.07), the Rams went a perfect 4-0 with wins over Chico (Calif.) State, Southern New Hampshire, Catawba (N.C.) and Delta (Miss.) State.

Gunkle, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, pitched two complete game shutouts, allowing just six hits combined in both starts. He took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against Chico State and elicited weak contact from Delta State hitters by getting good leverage out of his 6-foot-6, 210 pound frame, pitching ahead in the count and filling up the strike zone with an 88-91 mph fastball.

“What makes it even more impressive is I don’t think he had his best stuff in either start,” Prachniak said. “He didn’t really command his breaking ball very well. He missed some spots, but that just speaks to the type of competitor he is. He doesn’t need his best stuff to win,”

West Chester ended Delta State’s Cinderella story quickly and abruptly. The Statesmen (49-15) were coming off a dramatic win in an elimination game against Minnesota State-Mankato the day before, where they came back from five runs down in the eighth inning to win on a walk-off single by junior first baseman Michael Vinson.

The Rams came into the title game following an off day, which might have been a bad thing for any other team. Prachniak’s calm and focused demeanor kept West Chester from growing stale, and the Rams came out of the gates by putting up a five-spot in the first inning—knocking out the Statesmen righthander Colton Mitchell before he could record an out.

“Baseball is a tough sport to grunt through,” Prachniak said. “We play over 50 games a year and the games are long. The first three innings felt like forever (against Delta State), so you can’t always be amped up all the time. There are spots for that, but you have to digest what’s happening and (the team) did a good job analyzing each situation.”

“Getting those early runs takes a tremendous amount of pressure off because all year, we’ve been talking about shut down innings after our team scores,” Gunkle added.

Before sweeping their way through the Atlantic Regional in the opening round games of the NCAA tournament, West Chester edged out Shippensburg (Pa.) by one game in the PSAC regular-season and went 5-1 to win the conference tournament. In three championship games for the Rams this year, they outscored their opponents 25-0. Prachniak attributes his team’s success to the quality of play within their conference. In fact, nine of the Rams 10 losses came against PSAC opponents.

“I don’t know if it’s a shift of power,” Prachniak said. “The advantage is in the South. It's the better weather. The kids are able to play baseball year-round. There are certainly some benefits there, but I think there’s plenty of talent in our neck of the woods as well.”
West Chester tied a school-record for most wins in a season and became the first team from the Northeast to win a title. Senior second baseman Joe Wendle (.399/.479/.768, 12 HR and 59 RBI in 198 AB) admitted the difference from when the Rams were last in Cary in 2009 and this year was a change in leadership and attitude.

“This year, we had a different mentality and it comes from the coaching staff,” Wendle said. “Just from being here three years ago and seeing the teams we played, we left there with a bitter taste. We knew if we executed well and hit at the right time this year, that we’d have a good chance.”

Prachniak understands the target that’s going to be on their backs as reigning national champions next season and said that they’re actually going to enjoy it.

“When you see this spot on TV, there is that surreal feeling that hasn’t sunk in yet,” Prachniak said. “That’s how I feel right now. It’s going to take a while to digest all of this.”