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The Road to Success

In the wake of a wretched first season at IUP, baseball coach Jeff Ditch realized there was but one remedy for what ailed his program.

He had to hit the road.

Yes, Ditch put the campus in his rearview mirror. He tossed a suitcase in his trunk, climbed behind the wheel, and embarked on a search—not for a new job but for players who could restore his program’s pulse.

Colby Betz

All of Ditch’s days on the road paid off handsomely this spring when IUP took off in a new direction, courtesy of a dramatic U-turn. Only two years removed from the worst season in school history, the Crimson Hawks rebounded with one of the best. Sparked by many of the sophomores who constituted Ditch’s first recruiting class, IUP posted a record thirty-six wins, advanced to the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference playoffs for the first time since 1998, and climbed as high as No. 24 in the NCAA Division II poll.

The Hawks went from rank to ranked, seemingly in the blink of an eye.

Pitcher Colby Betz (right) earned All-PSAC West first-team honors.

“Even we look at what happened and go ‘wow,’” said junior second baseman Ryan Mostyn, referring to the veteran players who suffered through IUP’s abominable 10-41 campaign in 2006. “We’ve seen both ends of the spectrum. We were bottom of the NCAA. Then, to turn it around in such a short period of time and become one of the top teams in the country—compared to two years ago, that’s monumental.” There were indications back in February that a rebirth of sorts was imminent. The Hawks opened their 36-19 season by sweeping a four-game series from Virginia State—IUP outscored the Trojans 43-7—and never looked back. Ditch’s team returned from its southern spring break sojourn with a 14-4 record and loads of confidence.

“We didn’t have a lot of success on those trips before this year, so that was a real highlight,” said senior third baseman Shayne Busti, who blasted a team-high eleven home runs and knocked in sixty-one runs to set a school record and lead the PSAC. “We played a pretty good schedule down there against some really good North Carolina teams like Catawba, which was ranked, and Pfeiffer, so we were pretty excited to come away with as many wins as we did. That really set the tone for the rest of the season.”

The Hawks kept right on winning, often bludgeoning foes into submission. IUP scored a conference-high 444 runs to obliterate the school record by 140 and eclipsed existing standards in several other categories, including hits, home runs, and total bases. Sophomore right fielder Jamie Smith led the PSAC and set a school record for runs (65), sophomore shortstop Paul Bingham banged out an IUP-record sixtynine hits, and sophomore catcher T. J. Nichols paced the team in batting average (.406).

The pitchers also excelled. Staff ace Colby Betz earned All-PSAC West first-team honors by fashioning a 7-1 record and a teambest 2.93 ERA, and fellow sophomore Steve Mondschein finished 5-2.

Even in the midst of that agonizing 2006 campaign, Ditch never stopped believing he could resuscitate the IUP program, because he was convinced impact players like Mondschein, Betz, Nichols, Bingham, and Smith were within his grasp.

Coach Jeff Ditch

“I felt confident the whole time, because I knew that I was capable of recruiting in Pennsylvania,” Ditch said. “Coming here with the experience of having recruited at Penn State [as an assistant coach] for four years, I just felt like I kind of knew the ins and outs of the state and had had some success recruiting back when I was there. And the rest was easy. It’s easy to recruit to IUP. It sells itself. There are a lot of good things for the student-athlete to experience here.”

Alas, winning in baseball wasn’t one of them, at least not in 2006. The best way to reverse the program’s sagging fortunes was to boost the talent level, so Ditch hit the road in pursuit of prospects. The resulting influx of talent fueled a progression from 10-41 two years ago to 20-28 last season to 36-19.

“It’s just a credit to Coach Ditch’s recruiting,” said Betz. “I mean, he goes all over the place. He’s out all the time—if he’s not at practice, he’s out recruiting. And he’s brought in some quality players.”

Ones groomed in successful high school programs, the type who tolerate failure on the diamond about as well as Gordon Ramsay does in the kitchen. Defeat is no longer an acceptable outcome.

That refuse-to-lose mentality bore fruit in 2008, especially in the last weekend of the regular season, when IUP’s playoff hopes hinged on a four-game series against twotime defending PSAC West champion California. The Crimson Hawks won three of those games and swept Cal on the last day to clinch a PSAC playoff berth. They sewed up second place in the division with a 5-1 victory in the finale.

“Probably the best moment I’ve ever had in baseball was that win,” Mostyn said. “On their home field, knowing we had to win, to take two games against a real good baseball team to make the playoffs was awesome.”

The Hawks’ season ended with an 0-2 showing in the PSAC tournament, but that hasty exit couldn’t detract from all the wins that preceded it. Only two years after setting a school record for losses, IUP established one for victories. It was the kind of U-turn Jeff Ditch envisioned two years ago when he climbed behind the wheel and headed off in search of recruits.

The players he found were instrumental in helping the Hawks morph from rank to ranked.

“Going from ten wins to twenty last year to setting a school record with thirty-six wins—everything about this season was so special,” Busti said. “I know I’ll remember it for the rest of my life.”