After a low preseason ranking, the 2004 baseball team went a program-record 48-12 and made the semifinals of the NCAA College World Series.
(Photo courtesy of Rollins Archives and Special Collections) Following an 11-9 loss to the University of Tampa in February 2004, former Rollins College baseball coach Bob Rikeman remembers one thing about the 90-mile trip back to campus. “Usually on the bus ride home, I have to tell somebody to be quiet and think about what’s going on,” says Rikeman, who coached the Tars from 1995 to 2005. “That bus ride was completely dead silent.”
Sure, the Tars had lived up to their self-appointed nickname of the Dirtbags against fifth-ranked Tampa that afternoon. They scrounged for six runs in the top of the ninth, bringing the potential tying run to the plate. But they weren’t interested in moral victories—just actual ones.
The loss sparked them to a program-record 48-12 season and a spot in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II College World Series, arguably the best finish in school history. Other team highlights include making the national championship in 1954, being ranked No. 1 and in the top 10 for nine weeks in 1994, and going 41-19 in 2010.
But 2004 was a drastic turnaround for a program that found ways to lose against perennial Sunshine State Conference (SSC) and national powers Tampa and Florida Southern College.
Rikeman doesn’t need long to provide an example of such a loss. He remembers a game when Tampa had the bases loaded with two outs but bunted the ball back to the pitcher, who threw it past the Tars’ first baseman. Three runs were scored, leading to another Tars loss.
“But for some reason, the shoe was on the other foot [in 2004],” Rikeman says. “This team just had an edge.”
Not that he saw it at first, despite receiving compliments from scouts and umpires in the fall of 2003. The Tars had lost to graduation Jason Cloar ’03 ’06MBA, who hit a Rollins-record .403 over his career, from a squad that went 29-24 and finished ranked 16th in 2002.
“The attitude in 2003 was probably more confident than we should have been,” says utility man and leadoff hitter Toby Rice ’04, who took a program-record 23 hit by pitches in 2004. “Having top talent like Cloar probably gave us a sense of comfort that we could rely on one person to carry the team.”
Losing Cloar, second baseman Tito Alfonso ’04 believes, motivated the offense. They realized they needed to work harder because they couldn’t rely on Cloar, their No. 3 hitter in 2003. “Your three-hitter, that’s your most important bat,” says Alfonso, who led the 2004 team with 29 multihit games and 15 multi-RBI games. “That’s the guy that’s going to get a hit when everybody else isn’t seeing the ball. We all strove to be the No. 3 hitter because we knew what that symbolized.”
Those two shined at the top of the lineup, Rice batting .376 with a .495 on-base percentage and Alfonso posting .345 and .413 marks. They struck out just 29 times compared to 50 walks and 36 hit by pitches.
Rikeman believes Rice was the unquestioned leader of the team. “If you put him in a pro tryout, he’s not going to make the second tryout,” Rikeman says. “But you put him in a college setting and let him lead a team, that’s what he does.”
The Tars prided themselves on their defense and speed. They posted a school-record .969 fielding percentage, and Rice and Alfonso stole 32 bases. Opponents combined for just 42.
Of course, the Tars didn’t allow many base runners. Ace Steve Edsall went 9-0 with a 2.57 ERA over 105 innings to win the SSC Pitcher of the Year. He struck out a school-record 10.24 per nine innings.
Fellow starting pitchers Eduardo Chile ’06 and Gator Brooks ’05 joined him on the All-SSC team.
“It was great because they were three different types of pitchers,” former Tars pitching coach Rob Sitz ’02 says. “[Stephen] Edsall ’04 was the power pitcher. Brooks had a great curveball and hit his spots. Chile had a great cutter, great movement on the ball.
“The pitching staff as a whole fed off everybody. They wanted to do better than the guy before him.”
When those pitchers tired, they turned the ball over to a strong bullpen headlined by Gene Howard ’08, Nick Manson ’05, and Derek Rice. The trio went 13-2 with ERAs below 3.41.
Rikeman says the Tars received motivation after he taped copies of an Orlando Sentinel article that picked them to finish fifth in the conference, accompanied by a picture of Rodney Dangerfield captioned “No Respect,” around the stadium.
In Dirtbag fashion, they responded. The Tars went 27-1 after the early-season loss to Tampa, including a 10-inning road win against Florida Southern.
But the two biggest wins of the season came May 15. The Tars had been knocked to the losers bracket of their NCAA region tournament and needed to beat Florida Southern twice to advance. They used six pitchers, including their best three relievers, in the first one—a 13-inning game.
Rikeman turned to Edsall to pitch the championship and was about to fall asleep in the dugout due to the hard work of the season. David Pringle ’04 asked Rikeman how he could be so relaxed. The answer was simple. “David, I’ve got my best pitcher on the mound,” Rikeman said. “Either he does it or doesn’t.”
Edsall earned the win with a complete game just two days after his previous start. “That was surreal,” Alfonso says. “It was a [gutsy] performance. He said, ‘Get me to Sunday. I’m pitching the championship game.’ We believed he was going to win every time he was out there.”
The Tars’ season ended 12 days later with an 11-4 loss in the College World Series.
They have “Dirtbag” inscribed on their region championship rings. Rikeman, who now works for Rice, wears his every day, a reminder of the season he’ll reminisce about forever.
“It’s one of those things a coach would like to take credit for,” Rikeman says. “But I give all the credit to the kids. They bought into a system of a crazy coach. We recruited with the attitude of, ‘You can go to Florida Southern or Tampa, or you can come here and beat them.’
“They represented Rollins well,” he says. “That team was unbelievable to be around. If I could be around a group of men, I’d want to be around those guys. I’ll never forget it. Never.”