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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘It’s a special time’: Lewis-Clark State, nine other challengers to open NAIA World Series play this weekend

Lewis-Clark State players celebrate with Pu’Ukani De Sa, left, after hitting a home run during last year’s NAIA World Series in Lewiston.  (Andrew Green/LCSC Athletics)

LEWISTON – Over the next week, the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley will stage its annual “celebration of baseball.”

The NAIA World Series, which begins Friday morning at Harris Field, is the marquee event for this community, and it’s been that way for decades.

“The series and the valley have gone hand in hand for a long time,” Lewis-Clark State coach Jake Taylor said.

The main attraction, the hometown Lewis-Clark State Warriors, open play in the double-elimination tournament at 7 p.m. Friday against Indiana Wesleyan.

With 19 national championships, LCSC is the most successful program in NAIA history .

The Warriors are making their 24th consecutive appearance at the series and 41st overall.

“It’s a yearlong build-up to this thing,” Taylor said. “LC has had a lot of success for multiple decades. It’s just great to be a part of it. It’s a special time, for sure.”

From 2000-21, LCSC received an automatic bid to the 10-team tournament by way of a host berth. That brought some criticism from other programs and opposing fans, who felt the auto-bid was unfair.

Regardless, the Warriors were often series favorites and the most talented team at the tourney. They have captured nine championships since 2000, most recently in 2017.

Beginning in 2022, LCSC was no longer guaranteed a spot in the World Series. The Warriors had to win a regional “opening-round” tournament to earn their way into the national tourney field. LCSC was tabbed a host for one of those 10 events.

It was no doubt an unsettling possibility – that the series would commence in Lewiston without the hometown team. The Warriors are by far the biggest draw at the tournament, which is a major financial boon for the school and community. A few thousand fans show up for games that don’t include LCSC, but the stands are always packed when the Warriors play.

“It’s extremely stressful,” Taylor said of the opening round. “We’re still hosting (the series) and if we’re not in it, then it doesn’t make for the greatest tournament by our standards.

“It’s stressful, but helpful as well, just to continue to play and compete at a high level, and prove our way into it. People have their own opinions on everything, but having the ability to earn it, that helps us.”

Last year, a veteran LCSC team won that first round to qualify for the series. The Warriors went 4-2 at the series, losing to Southeastern University (Florida) in the championship round. LCSC finished the season 58-7 .

LCSC lost most of its key players to graduation – all but two regulars in the lineup and the team’s three best pitchers.

“It was a major overhaul,” Taylor said. “We had our work cut out for us. We had to recruit so many new players.”

Seven starting position players this season are transfers, and four came from power-conference programs – including Washington State, Oregon, Utah and Vanderbilt. Nineteen players hail from either Washington or Idaho, and a handful of others are Oregon natives.

Taylor called the 2023 season “a total roller coaster.” LCSC started off strongly but hit a lull and lost eight of 11 games in one stretch .

“We just couldn’t play well in every facet of the game, so it was pretty frustrating,” Taylor said.

The Warriors wound up 33-16, with a 14-10 mark in Cascade Conference play. LCSC didn’t win its conference after the Warriors had compiled a 49-5 record against Cascade competition over the past two years.

“We had to keep believing that it was going to come together,” Taylor said. “It started to come to fruition last week.”

After bowing out early in the conference tourney, the Warriors’ odds of returning to the series didn’t look encouraging. But LCSC received a host bid to the opening round and got a chance to prove itself .

LCSC outslugged 10th-ranked Hope (California) International 15-14 in the first game. The Warriors topped Concordia (Michigan) twice in two days to complete a surprising sweep and lock up a spot in the World Series.

“We’re hitting our stride,” Taylor said. “After that regional tournament, the practices have been super high energy, and guys are feeling confident. That game against Hope gave our guys a shot of confidence. It was probably one of the top five games I’ve been involved in during my coaching career.”

The Warriors don’t play the underdog role too often at the series, but they are the No. 9 seed this year. LCSC’s winning percentage of .673 is the lowest in a season for the program since the 1989 team, which went 6-0 at the World Series to win the national title.

The Warriors are hoping to cap an up-and-down season with a 20th national title. The bullpen is LCSC’s strength, but starting pitching has been up and down. The lineup features seven players batting above .300 and five with 10-plus home runs apiece.

“Guys are starting to feel pretty comfortable going into this thing,” Taylor said. “We talk about (the World Series) quite a bit during the season, but I don’t think they can grasp the magnitude of it until they go through it.”

Favorites include reigning champion Southeastern (55-4) and second-seeded Georgia Gwinnett (50-6), which won it all in 2021.

“You’ve got to embrace what the series is all about,” Georgia Gwinnett coach Jeremy Sheetinger said. “You’ve got to embrace the town, the people and the community, and realize just how important this is to the valley.”

The World Series generates an estimated $2-3 million in economic impact for the community, according to a 2020 report from the Lewiston Tribune. Nine states will be represented at this year’s series, which features a festival-like atmosphere throughout the week.

The championship round will begin Thursday. If necessary, a winner-take-all final will be held next Friday.