BIRMINGHAM – On the diamond, it’s been business as usual for the Birmingham-Southern baseball team.
The Panthers, annually one of the best NCAA Division III baseball teams in the country, are 31-9 overall and regular season champions of the Southern Athletic Association. Postseason play begins on Friday with a series against visiting Oglethorpe in the first round of the SAA Tournament. It could be the start of a long homestand in postseason play with the SAA Tournament championship and possibly the NCAA Division III Regionals and Super Regionals at Striplin Field.
Away from the diamond, however, it’s been far from normal for Birmingham-Southern head coach Jan Weisberg, his coaching staff, his players and really the entire BSC community. It’s been a year filled with uncertainty about the future of the financially-challenged school. Earlier this month, the announcement was made that the school would remain open.
“It’s been difficult,” said Birmingham-Southern catcher Jack Fleming. “But, for a lot of us, going out to the field has kind of been our escape. When we’re on the baseball field, you kind of put all of the stress and uncertainty of the school behind us. It definitely added some more challenges that we probably didn’t have in normal circumstances.”
For Weisberg, the approach was simple and direct. He didn’t hide from facts. He didn’t hide from the rumors. He talked about the school closing. He talked about the school remaining open. Ignoring the elephant in the room was certainly not an option.
“We were just very open and honest with them of the two different paths that could happen,” Weisberg said. “Just letting them know that if the results that ended up happening happened, nothing would change. They’ll have a great experience and Birmingham Southern is there. If it didn’t then there was a really solid plan in place and we were going to help them. Just to kind of alleviate some of the uncertainties they had so they could just focus on the here and now and realize that whatever happens, they are going to be okay.”
During the day, Weisberg said, players would come by to chat about the situation. He kept the focus on their concerns, even though it hit him also.
“It was so important, not just to our players, but we have 11 signees, who were wondering what’s going to happen to me,” Weisberg said. “I just had to pour myself into making sure they were taken care of, that I was leading my players and put myself on the back burner. Sure, maybe sometimes at night, you start to think about some things. That responsibility (to others), I think, occupied my time so much that I almost didn’t have time to think about it.”
The success on the field certainly helped.
“We’ve got a really veteran club, which I think helped us with what we were going through as a school, being able to focus on baseball,” Weisberg said. “To be the No. 1 team in Division III for most of the year, is a testament to them. It’s just a tough bunch of guys. We’ve pitched it fairly well this year. We have a lot of experience. I think that’s the biggest thing, guys who have played in (two or three) NCAA Tournaments. Nothing they see surprises them.”
Sophomore Joey White (8-2, 3.28 ERA) and junior Josh Leerssen (6-2, 2.43 ERA, 74 strikeouts in 55.2 innings) lead a deep and experienced pitching staff. Senior Hansen McCown is 4-2 with three saves. He has a 1.00 ERA with 58 strikeouts in 45 innings.
Offensively, seniors Cam McNearney (.316, 50 hits, 41 runs, 35 RBIs) and Ian Hancock (.304, 49 hits, 10 home runs, 53 RBIs) are the top performers. Junior Andre Dutton has a team-best 12 doubles and Fleming is second on the team with six home runs.
Weisberg said one of the best things about the season is the way the BSC alumni has not only responded to the team but also used baseball to help them endure the unknown.
“We were getting a lot of emails from alums, and not just baseball alums,” said Weisberg, who entered his 16th season as the program’s head coach with an overall record of 431-172-1 record. “There was some uncertainty and maybe some negativity in the press and a lot of people reached out. Really surprising how many people were coming to the park, coming to the games, saying, ‘I’m an alum, you got a great program, thank you for what you’re doing, I just wanted to come out and support you.’ The feeling of support and the showing of support was tremendous.”
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