“Why Not Us” was the slogan and hashtag for the 2023 Angelo State Rams baseball season, and none of the other teams at the NCAA Division II Baseball National Championships had an answer as the Rams swept through the tournament to claim ASU’s first men’s national championship since joining the NCAA in 1981.
And the winning actually started for the Rams before the tournament even began. Senior outfielder Rance Rosas, a health science professions major, earned the Elite 90 Award that goes to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative GPA at each NCAA championship. It was the second straight Elite 90 Award for ASU after outfielder Jackson Hardy (business major) won it in 2022.
Then, it was on with the show. Colloquially known as the D-II College World Series, the tournament hosted eight teams from across the country in Cary, N.C. The Rams made their record sixth trip to the series this year and rode a dominant pitching staff, flawless defense and timely offense to win the national title, defeating Rollins College, 6-5, in the final.
“If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. It’s a great testament to the players’ hard work, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
- Coach Kevin Brooks
After 19 seasons and over 700 victories as Rams head coach, Kevin Brooks finally got his hands on the championship trophy.
“We had to go through a gauntlet to get there,” Brooks said. “But if you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. It’s a great testament to the players’ hard work, and I couldn’t be more proud of them.”
“Why we coach is about the journey, about learning and going through some adversity, coming together and just loving each other,” he added. “Make no mistake, I wanted to win, but I would’ve been just as proud of this team if we hadn’t.”
One particular point of pride was junior starting pitcher Aaron Munson (management). He went 2-0 on the mound, earning wins in the first and last games of the series on his way to being named the tournament MVP.
“I didn’t think I would come back with the MVP trophy, but we all truly believed that we were going to win the whole thing,” Munson said. “We had the right mindset, and we came back with the championship, so it’s all very cool.”
Munson was also the picture of cool as he was tabbed to start the championship game.
“I actually had zero nervousness, it was the weirdest thing,” he said. “I thought I was going to be nervous and have all this adrenaline running, but I was actually really calm out there. It was super weird and I have no idea why. But I had my slider and curveball working, so maybe that was it.”
Another Rams pitcher who had it working was All-American lefty Kade Bragg (communication), the NCAA D-II Pitcher of the Year. He handily won Game 2 of the series and then picked up a save in the title game, notching a bases-loaded strikeout for the final out.
“I still can’t get over that feeling,” Bragg said. “It’s something that you always dream about, and it came true. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me in baseball.”
But, it didn’t come without a bit of angst. In only his second relief appearance of the season, and pitching on just three days rest after throwing eight innings in Game 2, Bragg gave up a hit and three walks that allowed Rollins to pull within one run before he locked it down.
“I just kept throwing my stuff,” Bragg said. “You can’t let the game get too big, it’s already hard enough. So, I just had to slow things down. I was just taking big deep breaths to try to stay in the moment. I can see why a lot of people were getting nervous, but I just tried to stay on task, and I got it done.”
“It’s something that you always dream about, and it came true. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me in baseball.”
- Kade Bragg
“What was going through my mind was that I might’ve made the worst coaching decision in the history of baseball,” Brooks said. “But, we had the best pitcher in the country out there, and you trust your players. So I really wasn’t that nervous, and Kade got it together and got it done.”
His reward for getting it done was to end up at the bottom of a dogpile of Rams players as they celebrated the title-clinching victory.
“They don’t lie when they say you can’t breathe at the bottom of the pile,” Bragg said. “It was horrible, but for the championship experience, I would definitely do it again.”
Also excelling on the mound for the Rams was junior Braxton Pearson (communication), who tossed five shutout innings to get the win in Game 3. Relievers Caleb Heuertz (business), Scott Ellis (communication) and Austin Teel (psychology) combined to throw 10 strong innings and record two saves. Over the four games in the series, ASU pitchers allowed just 11 runs while posting 36 strikeouts and a 2.75 ERA.
“Our pitching coach, Adam Foster, and our guys are the best in the nation,” Munson said. “We’ve been saying that all season, so to go out and perform on that stage as a staff was really special. We’re a really close group of guys.”
And as the saying goes, a pitcher’s best friend is defense. The Rams did not commit a single error in the series, catcher Tyler Boggs (finance) threw out two of four stolen base attempts, the infield turned multiple double plays, and the outfield made the national highlight reel.
Senior centerfielder Thomas Cain (finance) got to live every little boy’s dream when he was featured on ESPN SportsCenter for his leaping catch against the outfield wall that robbed Rollins of a home run in the championship game.
“It’s so cool!” Cain said. “You go out and work really hard for something, and then it happens and you end up making the play. It was awesome, and it’s a great feeling to make that play for my team.”
“Our defense led the country in fielding percentage,” Brooks added, “and we just played baseball really well in this tournament. These guys were able to maximize their opportunities probably better than any team we’ve had, and they did it all season long.”
All-American outfielder Jacob Guerrero (accounting) certainly made the most of his opportunity in the title game. His third-inning home run not only gave the Rams a 3-1 lead, it was ASU’s first home run at the D-II College World Series since it moved to Cary, N.C., in 2009.
“In that moment, I was just yelling and looking at my teammates,” Guerrero said. “It felt amazing. I don’t remember much of it around the bases, but it was an awesome moment. All I wanted to do was win with my teammates, and there is no greater feeling than winning the national championship with these guys.”
The Rams also got contributions from the entire batting order with different guys stepping up in different ways throughout the tournament. Designated hitter Tripp Clark (accounting) hit .428 for the series. Second baseman Austin Beck (exercise science) stole five bases. Right fielder Jackson Hardy (business) scored two runs, had two RBI and laid down three sacrifice bunts. First baseman Jordan Williams (management) got on base seven times and scored three runs. Shortstop Justin Harris (exercise science) and third baseman Kam Kelton (management) anchored the bottom of the lineup, combining for 10 hits, five RBI and five runs scored while also playing faultless defense. Both were selected to the All-Tournament Team along with Bragg and Munson.
“We had a bunch of experienced players who know how it feels to come up just short,” Kelton said. “So we were just super-determined to go get it done and be the first group to cross the threshold and bring the championship back to ASU because we knew we had the guys to do it.”
Kelton was also determined to win for his brother, Koby, who played for the Rams in their two previous trips to the championship tournament.
“It’s going to be super cool to share this with my brother,” Kelton said. “It’s sad that he couldn’t be on the field, but he knows that this trophy is also for him and all the Rams alumni who came before us. They helped build this program, and we couldn’t have done it without all those guys, including my brother. I hope they know that. This is for them.”
The Rams were also playing for their fans, who turned out in record numbers this season to cheer them on. A large contingent also showed up to give them a hero’s welcome when they flew back into San Angelo with the championship trophy.
“We were pulling up on the plane and we were all looking out the windows, and it was like, ‘Wow, there is a ton of people here!’” Guerrero said. “That was awesome. It was a really cool moment, and to be able to just be there to soak it in was a blessing. The fans have been great for us all season.”
“Our fan support is special, and it’s different,” Brooks added. “We try to paint a picture of it when we’re recruiting, but when new players get here, they’re still just blown away. It’s not like this anywhere else. We have transfers from different levels, but you can ask any of our players: in Division I, Division II, Division III, junior college or whatever, there is not a fanbase and community that gives the kind of support that we have. We’re just so blessed.”
As is the nature of college sports, though, student-athletes graduate and move on to the next stages of their lives. But long-time fan favorites like Jackson Hardy, Thomas Cain and Jordan Williams will take the Ram Family’s gratitude and a bunch of great memories with them as they depart.
“I’m going to miss this place so much,” Williams said. “To be able to do this in my final year is really special, and I’m so happy for my teammates and this town. They have given me so much, and it’s just awesome to be able to give this back to everyone.”
“Our fan support is special, and it’s different. We’re just so blessed.”
- Coach Kevin Brooks
And next spring, the returning Rams will welcome new teammates and once more begin the long journey that hopefully ends back in Cary, N.C.
“Choosing to come to ASU is the best decision I’ve ever made,” Guerrero said. “It’s awesome. This year has been great and we are soaking in the national championship. But next year, we’re going to get back to work and do it all again.”
Why not us in 2024?