The traditional curtain-raiser for the university baseball season – BSUK’s autumn National University Baseball Championship -- took place on the weekend of 7-8 October at Farnham Park, and at a tournament where there was little to choose between the top eight teams, a familiar name found itself on top of the pile.
The Loughborough Ones produced five excellent performances to win their fourth National Championship courtesy of a 4-2 win in the final over an impressive Queen Mary Knights side.
With a record 12 teams entering the Championship, the teams were separated into four groups of three, with the top two teams from each group making their way to the quarter-finals and further knockout stages.
Three of the four groups went with form, as the Nottingham Thieves and UEA Blue Sox went through to face the Southampton Mustangs and Durham Tigers respectively in the quarter-finals. With Loughborough and Queen Mary advancing from Blue group, the identity of their opponents was unknown until the last second as in the Red group chaos ensued after each team recorded a victory. When the dust had settled it was Leeds Beckett Carnegie that stood tallest via run differential and thereby won the right to face the Queen Mary Knights in the last eight, while the UCL Capitals separated themselves from the Imperial College Falcons and faced Blue group winners Loughborough.
The tournament really came alive once it reached the knockout stages, and apart from a lopsided 12-3 Loughborough victory over UCL, the other three quarter-finals were each decided by two runs or less, with shocks aplenty.
In university baseball, there is a time limit on all games and if an inning is not completed before the time limit is reached the score at the end of the last completed inning is used as the final score. This ‘count back’ rule got plenty of use at the quarter-final stage.
First, former champions Durham succumbed to UEA 7-6 on countback, before former finalists Leeds suffered a similar fate, going down 2-1 to a surprisingly strong Queen Mary side, again on countback.
While Southampton might not have needed count back to move past Nottingham, they did require eight full innings to do so, scoring the decisive runs in their final at-bat.
While the semi-finals took place elsewhere at a busy Farnham Park, in the consolation group the Coventry University Red Arrows recorded their first-ever win in a 12-11 victory over the Imperial College Falcons. This was quickly followed by their second and third wins over the Queen Mary Barbarians and the Oxford Rangers to top the group and secure ninth place.
Even while enduring their surprise defeat to the Red Arrows, the Imperial College Falcons made university baseball history when medical student Zayd Alhaddad played all nine positions in the same game. Perhaps due to Alhaddad’s heroics, the Falcons rallied to take 10th place overall, with the Oxford Rangers and Queen Mary Barbarians taking 11th and 12th respectively.
In the minor placings, with UCL forfeiting their Sunday games due to injury, Leeds Beckett claimed seventh place while Nottingham overcame a youth-orientated Durham side to claim the fifth spot.
So on to the semifinals where the Queen Mary Knights took on Southampton and UEA faced off against Loughborough.
While they had successfully eliminated one former champion in the previous round, UEA couldn’t perform the same feat against Loughborough, who moved into the final courtesy of a 14-4 victory.
A closer contest between Queen Mary and Southampton played out simultaneously, with the team from London prevailing by 6-4.
With the UEA Blue Sox beating Southampton to secure third place, only the National University Baseball Championship final remained between favourites Loughborough and the surprising Queen Mary Knights.
With both teams starting their ace pitchers in the form of James Hicks for Queen Mary and Jacob Dean for Loughborough, a pitching duel was the predictable outcome. As the sun began to set, both teams traded hits, strikeouts, and defensive gems with runs in short supply -- but it was the team from Leicestershire that got their noses out in front.
With Carlos Casal relieving Dean as the game wound towards its conclusion, Loughborough somehow found a couple of extra runs late on, giving them the breathing room needed to win a record fourth university title.
The team that plays in African violet have now entered six NUBC tournaments in their history, winning four and finishing as runners-up in the other two.
Loughborough club president Charlie Mayhew said: “We’ve always had an abundance of extremely talented athletes, which is always helpful, but what really helped us this year is a solid batting order throughout and strong pitching depth, meaning that we were always able to dig ourselves out of tough situations and didn't have to rely on a few individuals to carry the team.”
With every passing University Championship, the overall standard of play improves dramatically, something Mayhew is keen to point out. “You can definitely tell the sport is up and coming in universities,” Mayhew said, “as each year there are more teams entering competitions and the standard of play is always getting higher, with more teams being able to challenge for titles.”
As any champion will tell you, though, getting to the top is one thing; staying there is quite another. We’ll see in March when the NUBC returns whether Loughborough can maintain their place in the sun.
Final standings the autumn National University Baseball Championship were:
1 – Loughborough University Ones (Champions)
2 – Queen Mary University Knights (Runner-up)
3 -- University of East Anglia Blue Sox
4 -- University of Southampton Mustangs
5 -- University of Nottingham Thieves
6 -- Durham University Tigers
7 -- Leeds Beckett Carnegie
8 -- University College London Capitals
9 -- Coventry University Red Arrows
10 -- Imperial College London Falcons
11 -- University of Oxford Rangers
12 -- Queen Mary University Barbarians
Tag(s): Get in the Game