College baseball PacWest
Coach Justin James looks on with his players as North Greenville celebrates the championship victory over PLNU. Photo credit: Screen shot, ncaa.com

Point Loma Nazarene fought back in the ninth inning, but it wasn’t enough as No. 1 seed North Greenville prevailed 5-3 Friday to win the NCAA Division II Baseball Championship.

PLNU made it a contest of the top-two seeds with their 2-0 early win Friday over No. 6 Rollins in Cary, N.C. That earned the Sea Lions a shot at the title, but they had to defeat North Greenville to force a second game Saturday to claim it.

It was not to be, as the Crusaders, out of South Carolina, scored the victory to go undefeated in the double-elimination tournament and secure their first national championship.

PLNU ended the season at 51-10, while North Greenville improved to 54-10.

The road to the Division II tournament represented a remarkable about face from a poor 2021 campaign in which the Sea Lions won just 11 games.

Point Loma became the first PacWest team to reach the National Championship game as well as the first to eclipse 50 wins in a single season.

“We played one of the toughest schedules in the entire country for 30 straight games last year,” head coach Justin James said. “These guys grinded through that and this is what happens when you come on the other side, don’t complain and just learn. This is the same team as last year, just a year older.”

One of the stalwarts of the turnaround, Baxter Halligan, gave his team a chance twice Friday, first with his arm, then with his bat.

PLNU secured the right to play on in the tense shutout of No. 6 Rollins to start the day. They manufactured their runs, scoring on a bunt and a sacrifice fly respectively in the second and sixth innings.

Halligan, who started, went six innings, giving up four hits while striking out five. Cole Hillier got out of a two on, no-out jam in the bottom of the ninth to eliminate the Tars a day after the Sea Lions suffered a rout at their hands.

In the late game, Halligan, who also serves as DH, knocked a two-run, one out homer to right in the ninth inning to pull PLNU closer, at 5-3. With two outs to go, Hunter Otjen grounded out to short and Jakob Christian struck out swinging to give the Crusaders the crown.

Though the Sea Lions outhit North Greenville 10 to eight, the opposing pitchers recorded 16 strikeouts to get out of several jams and strand 11 Sea Lions.

PLNU’s Jack Gonzales got the start on three days rest and allowed two runs in four innings, one of them unearned.

He received some help in left field too. In the fourth, with the bases loaded, two outs and the Crusaders ahead 2-0, Ethan Stringer lifted a ball down the line that would have scored at least two runs, but Jack Malone flew in for a diving catch to end the inning.

“Honestly, I can’t remember much of making the catch,” Malone said. “It was just instincts.”

The big play led to success in the plate as Otto Kemp hit a leadoff home run in the fifth, his 17th of the season, to put PLNU on the board. The hit also made him a perfect 61 for 61 in reaching base at least once every game this season.

In the seventh inning, though, North Greenville used small ball to gain some breathing room, scoring two runs after a leadoff single, but also a Sea Lion wild pitch. The Crusaders made the lead 5-1 in the eighth on a walk, stolen base and RBI-single.

Four Point Loma players received a consolation, though – they made the All-Tournament team, announced before the post-game trophy presentation. Halligan and Malone joined catcher Easton Waterman and shortstop Scott Anderson in receiving the honor.