Baseball’s Out-of-the-Park Season
In 2023, L&C’s baseball team won its first Northwest Conference Championship since 1987 and advanced to its first-ever NCAA Tournament. In addition, third baseman Jack Thomson BA ’23 was named D3baseball.com National Player of the Year and a First Team All-American.
Jack Thomson BA ’23 remembers his early days at Lewis & Clark, when he and other young members of the baseball team dared to talk about a dramatic turnaround for a team dogged by losses.
“There were seniors at that time who said ‘Dude, what are you talking about? That’s never going to happen.’ That showed the mentality that guys had at the time,” Thomson says. “We had a lot of dark days. But guys in my class and the year ahead of me were really driven and had a vision.”
The Lewis & Clark baseball team’s improbable rise to the top of the Northwest Conference and a historic first NCAA Division III tournament appearance last spring got a major lift from Thomson, a program-changing player who won this year’s D3baseball.com National Player of the Year Award. He is the first player in program history to receive this honor and only the second First Team All-American in the L&C baseball annals.
Building a winning team after more than 25 consecutive losing seasons didn’t happen overnight. But there were flickers of hope early in the ill-fated 2020 season, followed by months of uncertainty.
In 2020, the Pioneers lost 10 of their first 13 games to open that season before heading to Newberg to face conference favorite George Fox for a three-game series.
By then, news about the still-mysterious coronavirus had the world on edge.
Lewis & Clark won two of its three games that weekend against George Fox to gain a shot of much-needed confidence. But within a few days, the rise of COVID-19 brought much of normal life, including sports, to an abrupt halt.
A baseball team that enjoyed a rare feelgood moment dispersed as the L&C campus closed. The players returned to their homes.
“We had a decision to make,” Jack Thomson remembers. “It could go one of two ways. We could ride the momentum out, or we could get to work. It’s fun to win, and we wanted it to happen more often. A lot of guys rallied around the idea that winning is a lot better than losing.”
Lewis & Clark head baseball coach Matt Kosderka and his staff—as well as their young group of players—decided to use the shutdown as a restart.
Jacob Serafini BA ’21, JD ’24, the team’s shortstop, set up a group chat so that teammates could remain in touch and hold each other accountable.
Coach Kosderka and his staff began sending out daily motivational videos to the players, reminding them to keep working, keep studying, and not lose focus. He also used the messages to remind the players how much he cared about them.
Thomson, back home in Millbrae, California, built a workout space in the backyard of his parents’ home. He used a bucket to form cement blocks and anchored them to steel pipes to make barbells. He screwed 2x4s together to create a squat rack.
“It was pretty janky, but it did the job,” Thomson says.
He and a local buddy found an elementary school field with a backstop and began making daily trips there for batting practice. Thomson took video of those batting sessions and sent them to hitting coach Eric Del Prado for analysis and feedback.
By the time the team came back together for the start of the 2021 season, the players were more determined than ever to turn around the fortunes of Lewis & Clark baseball. But as it turned out, there was still more to learn about how to win. The 2021 season ended with a 9-23 record; however, the team’s batting average improved from .226 to .264.
We had a decision to make. It could go one of two ways. We could ride the momentum out, or we could get to work. It’s fun to win, and we wanted it to happen more often. A lot of guys rallied around the idea that winning is a lot better than losing.”
In 2022, Thomson took his game to a new level. A dedication to weight training that began in his backyard transformed his body from 180 pounds to a powerful 230. And he carefully chose which pitches to swing at, leading to a .450 batting average. He reached base in 61 percent of his at-bats.
“He was already a talented player and a hard worker, but pre-COVID, he had a hard time dealing with failure,” Kosderka says. “When he came out of COVID, he was a different guy, physically and mentally, and the example he set for our guys each day was program changing. It was also a huge help to our program that he was able to start looking past his own performance and find a way to lift up the other guys as well.”
Thomson became the most feared batter in the conference. On any given weekend, he might get three or four pitches to hit, and he routinely crushed them.
“He would hit a homer or a double or both,” Kosderka said. “It was very Barry Bonds–like. I’m not sure I’ll ever see a guy as locked in as he was during that season.”
By the end of 2022 play, Lewis & Clark has chalked up a 20-17 record, the team’s first winning season since 1995.
It all led to the magical 2023 season. The games that used to slip away didn’t. And in games where L&C fell behind, the team found ways to come back.
Over the course of the season, Thomson smashed 23 home runs. Brennen Davis BA ’25, Luke Bass BA ’24, Jakob Ghammachi BA ’24, and Will Heron BA ’25 helped round out a lineup that had few holes.
And the pitching improved, which was a crucial element to the team’s success. Luke Ritter BA ’25, Brett Pierson BA ’24, and Kris Wuelfing BA ’23 combined to go 19-7 as starters.
In a pivotal game at Whitman College on March 12, Lewis & Clark went into the bottom of the ninth trailing 9-4. The team rallied for six runs to win it, capped by a three-run double by Heron.
Moments like that one led to the conference tournament weekend of April 21–23. Lewis & Clark capitalized on a late surge to finish second in the conference’s regular season standings and earn their first-ever trip to the Northwest Conference Tournament. After splitting their first two games of the tournament, Lewis & Clark won three straight games, including sweeping top-seeded Pacific University. It was the first conference crown since 1987.
“It was insane,” Thomson said. “You get that feeling in our stomach and your heart after achieving that goal and seeing all your teammates and coaches so excited. It’s a dream come true.”
It was insane. You get that feeling in your stomach and your heart after achieving that goal and seeing all your teammates and coaches so excited. It’s a dream come true.”
Lewis & Clark advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time (the program was part of the NAIA until 1998) and traveled to Birmingham, Alabama, for the NCAA Regionals. In their first-ever NCAA Tournament game, Lewis & Clark defeated the seventh-ranked team in the nation, host Birmingham-Southern College, for their first NCAA Tournament win and first win over a nationally ranked squad since April 13, 2008.
By the end of the season, Lewis & Clark had tied the single-season records for wins (31-14) and conference wins (15-9) while posting the fourth-best winning percentage (.689) in school history. Kosderka was named Northwest Conference Coach of the Year.
“Last season did feel like a movie at times,” Kosderka says.
Thomson graduated in May and will be playing his final season at Division I University of Portland while studying for his MBA. But the future is bright for L&C’s baseball program. Davis and Ghammachi each earned All-Region honors last spring, and six of the team’s seven All-Conference honorees (Bass, Anthony Clerici BA ’24, Davis, Heron, Ghammachi, and Ritter) will be returning for the 2024 season.
The team will also be playing on a brand-new playing surface next spring. Huston Sports Complex is currently undergoing renovations, with both the baseball and softball dirt-and-grass fields being replaced by turf.
Over the course of just a few years, a glimmer of hope from a determined baseball team eventually led to a dog-pile celebration. And in the Lewis & Clark dugout, it’s no longer far-fetched to talk about winning.