CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The Big Ten champion Gophers baseball squad not only brought home a team win, but also several individual victories.
Seven Gophers players were named to the 1998 Big Ten All-Tournament team following Saturday’s 9-8 comeback win over Illinois at Illinois Field. On Thursday, six Minnesota players, including three of those honored Saturday, were named to the 1998 All-Big Ten team.
Gophers names dominated the all-tournament team — first baseman Robb Quinlan, shortstop Rick Brosseau, catcher Jeremy Negen, designated hitter Adam Horton and pitcher Ben Birk. Quinlan and right fielder Craig Selander were named first-team All-Big Ten and pitcher Dan McGrath earned second-team honors. Birk and third baseman Matt Scanlon were selected to the third team.
But perhaps the greatest victory of the weekend came for a player who battled the previous four seasons to solidify his place in the Gophers starting lineup: senior Mark Groebner.
“Mark was a walk-on in our program, a raw recruit and a high school player that had some tools, but had no clue how to play,” head coach John Anderson said. “He worked very, very hard throughout his career and I know that during the course of this year, there were some times when we had to settle him down a little bit. We had our conversations.”
Groebner stirred things up this weekend, capturing second-team All-Big Ten honors, being named to the tournament team and, as perhaps the most satisfying conclusion, being selected as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
What defines Groebner more clearly than those titles, though, are the reasons behind his selection as the player every team wanted to have in its dugout.
In facing Ohio State, Penn State and Illinois, Groebner went 7-for-14. Several of those hits were timely, including two home runs off the Buckeyes’ Justin Fry and his game-winning, tournament-clinching single against Illini reliever Brian Funk on Saturday.
Groebner stepped into the batter’s box facing a situation that made Gophers fans in attendance cringe with anxiety. Groebner’s own mom could barely watch as her son read the signs given by third base coach Rob Fornasiere.
The dragging minutes leading up to the most crucial at bat of the weekend added to the drama.
In the ninth inning, with Minnesota down 8-7, lead-off hitter Mike Arlt grounded out. Matt Brosseau was then hit by a pitch and advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by Mark Devore.
Robb Quinlan reached on an error by the Illini’s Kevin Rudden, as the first baseman failed to catch a throw from reliever Jimmy Journell. Brosseau scored the tying run on the play and Quinlan advanced to second.
A Journell wild pitch allowed Quinlan to take third and then, facing his last batter, Journell walked Scanlon. After Journell allowed the free ride, Illinois pitching coach Dan Hartleb approached the mound and motioned toward the Illini bullpen.
Funk was the hurler of choice, forcing Journell to take the bench after failing to retire the side in what started out as a routine inning. Funk intentionally walked Selander to load the bases, a move that did not surprise Groebner as he waited on deck.
“When they changed pitchers, I was getting myself prepared because I was pretty sure that’s what they were going to do,” Groebner said. “You would have a force out at any base and it just made sense — the righty match-up vs. the lefty (Selander). Also, I have never faced him before. I just think the match-up favored them.”
Despite all those past conversations the senior had with his coach, this might have been a time when Groebner needed Anderson’s support the most.
“I just told him before the last at bat that you worked five years for a chance to have an opportunity to be in this situation in the championship game, go up and enjoy it, enjoy the moment, have some fun with it,” Anderson said. “Try to hit the ball hard and see what happens.
“I couldn’t think of a better person to have up there based on how hard he has worked to even have a chance to play at this level, much less get a hit in and be MVP of this tournament.”
Groebner, playing like the veteran he is, came through in the clutch. Although the man who has a fatherly presence over the rest of the youngsters on the team knew it was a hit upon contact, he wasn’t sure his teammates shared his knowledge.
“It seemed like nobody got excited until I got to first base, and I am like, ‘Is everybody in this game or is just me?'” Groebner said. “I thought, ‘Gee this is it right here.’ And then everybody came charging at home plate and then out to me. I got trampled over out at the pitcher’s mound.”
Being tackled by teammates made Groebner’s effort over the past years worth it.
“I almost got the wind knocked out of me,” Groebner said. “It was a moment I will always remember. No doubt about it.”
The left fielder won’t have long to dwell on his heroism. As time-consuming as practice can be, Groebner might put in some extra time this week as the team prepares to travel to one of the eight regionals this weekend, its destination pending today’s announcement of seedings.
The Gophers will have to outplay five other teams if they want to advance to the College World Series the following week.
“You just try to prolong things,” Groebner said.
But if this week is the last time Groebner will take batting practice, shag balls or participate in an inter-squad scrimmage as a member of the Gophers, he has experienced enough success to fill a lifetime.
“I think it’s a great story, and as coach and teacher you love to see the people who start at the bottom work their way to the top,” Anderson said. “There are obvious ones that are going to make it, but some of these guys you have no idea. It’s a great moment for Mark, and I am proud of him.”