Iowa Western baseball team ending decade of success at familiar location — NJCAA World Series

Coach Marc Rardin has led Iowa Western to three NJCAA national titles this decade. The Reivers start their quest for another beginning Sunday.

Iowa Western earned a trip to the NJCAA World Series last week in Mount Carmel, Illinois, by beating top-ranked Wabash Valley, a team that only lost once in the regular season, twice in its district qualifier.

In most cases, the result would’ve been considered a massive upset. Wabash Valley had been voted the No. 1 team, unanimously, in the national poll for nearly two straight months. But because the Midwest’s premier junior college program was the one on the winning side, it wasn’t really too much of a surprise.

The Reivers are frequent visitors to the national tournament in Grand Junction, Colorado. And because of that, the celebration of their achievement was relatively modest compared to some other groups.

“We dogpile once a year,” Iowa Western coach Marc Rardin said. “If you want it to be special, you do it one time. I like the business approach of what we do and how we do it. It gets noticed by other people. But I want them to know we really appreciate everything we do. We want to handle it in a certain way.”

The Reivers will be making their 12th appearance at the juco World Series under Rardin on Sunday when they face Connors State in their opening game at Suplizio Field in Grand Junction. They’ve been there seven times previously in this decade — one in which they have changed the junior college landscape.

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Prior to 2010, no team from the Northern District had ever won a national title. Iowa Western then claimed three of them in a span of five seasons from 2010 to 2014 and had a third-place finish to boot.

During that stretch, Rardin began hearing other coaches say they wanted to be the next Iowa Western.

“If we want to do it, we’ve got to beat them,” he said he was told. “We’ve got to get as good or better to just beat them. I think that’s one of the coolest compliments I got from other people in my profession.”

Rardin took over a good Reiver program in 2004 and led it to a third-place finish in the national tourney in his second season. He had IWCC back in Grand Junction from 2007-09, but went 0-2 in all three years.

Iowa Western’s breakthrough came at the 2010 World Series, which featured a teen phenom from Las Vegas named Bryce Harper. The future No. 1 draft pick played a role in IWCC’s first title run.

Rardin said prior to the tournament that the Reivers would pitch to Harper if they met No. 2 Southern Nevada in Grand Junction, which happened in the winners bracket. Iowa Western starter Zach Willand struck out the Southern Nevada freshman in the first. Harper later hit two three-run homers and a two-run double.

The slugger’s eight-RBI effort knocked the Reivers into the losers bracket, where they stayed alive the following day. That night, Harper was ejected from CSN’s showdown with No. 1 San Jacinto when he drew a line in the batter’s box with his bat — indicating a pitch’s path — after being called out on strikes.

Harper had to sit out, per NJCAA rules, CSN’s rematch with Iowa Western in an elimination game the next day. The Reivers posted a walk-off victory, then beat San Jacinto twice to win the title.

The outcome of the tournament never made Rardin second-guess his decision on how to handle Harper.

“Honestly, I’ve never really thought about it much,” he said. “We won. That erases a lot of it for me.”

The Harper ejection was a crucial moment in the tournament. But Rardin believes the turning point was Brent Seifert’s game-winning homer in the ninth against Southern Nevada in the rematch the day after.

Although he was Iowa Western’s top hitter, Seifert had been struggling a bit so Rardin batted him sixth. With the tying run on for the Reivers, Seifert grabbed a smaller bat and then launched the walk-off home run.

“Nowadays, kids roll their eyes when you tell them to choke up and put the ball in play,” Rardin said. “And he’s grabbing a bat he hasn’t swung since he was a junior in high school because he knew he needed to make sure he put a ball in play for the betterment of his team. Then he hits a home run.”

The 2010 championship vaulted Reiver baseball to another level. That team led the nation in hitting, but it didn’t have the star power that its national title would entice to Council Bluffs soon after.

“We only had like five or six Division I guys on that team,” Rardin said. “It was just a bunch of guys that were a link in a chain ... but they made a really strong chain. But as individuals, they were just really OK.”

That group set the standard for a monumental decade. Iowa Western finished third with a young group the next year, then returned to Grand Junction as the No. 1 team in 2012. The Reivers dropped their first game of that tournament, then rebounded to win the championship to cap a program-best 62-6 season.

In 2014, IWCC returned to have the most dominant juco World Series in an unbeaten run to a third crown. After winning their opener 6-5, the Reivers outscored their final four opponents by a 47-6 count.

“In my 17 years here, there hasn’t been anything like that,” Rardin said. “It was unbelievable.”

Iowa Western’s three national titles only begin to tell the story of its dominant decade. By the time it’s over, the Reivers will have sent more than 100 players to NCAA Division I schools. Four of those players ended up returning to the area as College World Series participants. One even won a CWS title.

A few others went directly into professional baseball. Erik Swanson, a pitcher on the 2014 title team, recently made his major league debut with Seattle. Anthony Bemboom, a catcher in 2010 who went on to play at Creighton, joined him in the bigs a short time later when he was called up by Tampa Bay.

“It’s really, really cool. That’s actually what this is all about — them getting opportunities,” Rardin said. “It’s a tribute to them and how they were raised. And it’s also a tribute to our system to get those kids in (those opportunities). It’s awesome to be part of that. It’s like winning, we never take it for granted.”

Rardin is already an NJCAA Hall of Fame inductee and recently passed the 800-win mark at Iowa Western. He’s had opportunities to leave. But with the Reivers rolling to another World Series, and his son Tyler set to join his program next season, he’s happy to keep his “living, breathing culture” going.

“I said I was going to be here five years when I took the job,” he said. “And I’m finishing my 17th and raising my family here. I don’t know if ‘surreal’ is the right word, but I used to bend over backwards for people to see my guys. Now, this is an annual stop in the fall for everybody. There’s certain days where we could be scrimmaging on a Tuesday and have five schools and scouts here or we could have 40.

“We have stayed at a certain level. To me, it’s the consistency is being there every day with it and doing it for a long time. In the Midwest, nobody is doing what we’re doing at the level that we’re doing it at for the duration we’re doing it at. It’s pretty cool. But it’s pretty hard. I’m not going to say it’s easy.”

Success brought about challenges. And for the better part of 10 years, Iowa Western has been getting everyone’s best shot. But Rardin said the current Reivers feel a desire to “defend the jersey” and live up to the expectations that have been set in recent years. He expects them to be a tough out at the World Series.

“That’s what I like about what our program’s getting to. It’s a culture of excellence,” he said. “We weren’t the best team there last weekend, but that doesn’t matter. Our uniform had a lot to do with it.”

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