Streak keeps a baseball season, and hope, alive at Keystone College

Here’s the truth about easily — and I mean, easily — the most impressive run of success any college, high school, or professional team around here ever put together, in any type of athletic venue.

There are some within Keystone College’s baseball program that would just as soon not have to think about "the streak" anymore, bring it up every year at this time, cut every blade of grass on the field or drag the infield or go on recruiting trips without having to wonder how they can possibly keep it going another year. Every year.

“On a personal level,” Giants head coach Jamie Shevchik says with a sigh and no sense of apology, “I wish that it was over.

“You never want to lose, right? But the last couple of years, you start preparing yourself a little bit. Like, if this is going to end, this is what it’s going to feel it’s not a shock to you. But as a coach, from a personal standpoint, there is a ton of pressure that is on our coaching staff to make sure that this thing keeps going, because we don’t ever want it to end. But if we lost, for as much as that would hurt, there would be a huge sigh of relief knowing that it’s over and that we can just kind of regroup.”

But, it’s still not over. And that’s pretty damn amazing, when you think about everything the Giants are dealing with right now.

Every odd stacked against them.

Every good reason there seemed to be to just walk out on a baseball field and have anything but winning a 19th straight conference title on their minds.

On Friday, though, Shevchik’s resilient and relentless Giants will be playing baseball, facing New England Small College Athletic Conference champion Middlebury at 1:30 p.m. to kick off the Misericordia Regional in the NCAA Div. III Baseball Championship tournament. And for a while, maybe things will feel a little more normal around the La Plume campus.

If you’re unfamiliar with the competing backgrounds of its latest tournament appearance, here’s a snapshot: For more than a month, Keystone College has been worried about far more than winning the United East Conference and extending the streak.

Reports that the 150-year-old institution may be on the verge of closing have been the focus of the local press. Its accreditor, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, said Keystone teeters on the verge of “imminent” closure. Keystone remains hopeful that’s the worst case scenario, but the accreditor insists it was the college itself that reported the “imminent closure” potential, which set the procedures in motion to plan for such an event.

In short, it’s at least fair to say that, on paper, it would be difficult to be totally focused on baseball when everywhere you look and everything you hear and read indicates your school might not be around in the fall.

And yet...

Another thing about “the streak” that needs to be understood: The first 18 years, there were plenty of seasons in which the Giants entered championship series or tournaments in the NEAC and the CSAC and the new iteration of the United East Conference as the prohibitive favorite. Anyone wanting to sound foolish and knock Keystone’s streak did have an easy rebuttal to make every year, that the Giants didn’t always play in the strongest conference.

That went out the window this year.

When the United East and CSAC merged, it took two conferences that both had automatic qualifying bids to the tournament and eliminated one of them. It also brought in a tournament powerhouse — Penn State-Harrisburg — that beat them twice during the regular season and entered last weekend’s championship series ranked No. 12 in the nation.

All Keystone did as the clear, decisive underdog was jump out to a 5-0 lead in the first game of the three-game championship series and hold on to win, then score four times in the second inning of the second game to put the stunned Lions in an insurmountable hole on the way to the sweep.

“This legitimizes, I think, the last 18 years of winning that conference championship every year,” Shevchik said. “What makes it really special is the background noise, the distractions that these kids are constantly hearing. And, I’m not going to go in-depth about it. But that wears on you. The last thing these kids think about when they read the paper or watch the news or whatever is baseball. They’re worried about everything else. But my message two weeks ago was, let’s forget about everything else that has been happening. Forget about what you’re reading. Forget about the rumors, and lock in for baseball. Let’s lock in for baseball.”

Shevchik has long characterized Keystone’s conference title streak with five words: “A blessing, and a curse.” And that makes total sense.

It’s great to bring it up on the recruiting trail, to tell recruits as Shevchik and his staff do that if they’re interested in winning conference championships, the only other program in the nation that guarantees you as good a shot to win one is the UConn women’s basketball team. On the same note, winning 18 of 19, or nine of the last 10, championships is just as impressive, and comes without the mounting pressure the streak brings with it.

This year, though, maybe the streak was more blessing than anything else.

As the Giants swim in a sea of uncertainty surrounding them elsewhere, there’s no doubt now on the field. About any of the first 18 championships. Or about this program’s place in college baseball as the tournament begins.

They’ll be straining to create some good news for a campus and a community longing for it. And they’ve been as good as anybody when it comes to authoring it.