By Nick Dettmann - For The Northern Virginia Daily
GRAND CHUTE, Wis. -- Nine years ago, Illinois Wesleyan took it on the chin in the school's first World Series appearance.
While it's a different cast of players this time around, the Titans were able to return the favor and standing in the cross fire was unfortunately the Shenandoah Hornets and Greg Van Sickler.
The Titans hit a pair of two-run home runs in a four-run first inning against Van Sickler en route to a 7-5 opening-round victory of the NCAA Division III College World Series on Friday night.
"A great win for our team, our program," Titans coach Dennis Martel said. "We were up here nine years ago and kind of took it on the chin with some inexperienced players and a bunch of sophomores.
"This year we've got a bunch of veterans that have been battle tested. They've been in three regionals now. Coming out, I don't think they were as intimidated."
This is the second appearance by the Titans in NCAA Division III baseball's grandest stage. The last time here, they were two and done.
Martel had some self-doubt that his team belonged here with a 20-loss record. But a four-run first inning, sparked by a pair of two-run home runs off the All-American Van Sickler, put the kibosh on that.
"I think that took a lot of the edge off our players, maybe we do belong here," Martel said. "I still wondered if we did. I think the players and everybody was second-guessing a 27-20 team."
The twin two-run homers weren't the only sore spots for the Hornets (38-9). The Titans had little trouble hitting the right-handed Van Sickler, pounding out 12 hits, and most were line drives.
The home runs, which were by Casey McIntosh -- his 12th of the season -- and Jeff Grodecki (second of the year) were no-doubters as they sailed out of the ballpark over the tall left-field fence.
"It was kind of like a big punch in the face in the first inning for me," Van Sickler said. "I didn't think I'd come out there and cruise against them, but I thought I could compete with them.
"They certainly hit the ball around; came out of the gates swinging. I give them a lot of credit. It caught me off guard a ton."
The Hornets got as close as 5-4, but a sacrifice fly by McIntosh in the sixth extended the lead to 6-4. Then in the seventh, Mark McDermott hit an RBI single to right to stretch the lead to 7-4.
"I'm very proud of the way our guys competed," Hornets coach Kevin Anderson said. "The beginning of the game did not go as planned, to say the least. Two two-run homers in the first inning ... that really gave a shot in the arm to [Jason] Pankau, who's an outstanding pitcher to begin with.
"If you give him a four-run lead, he's pretty darn tough."
Not making it any easier on for the Hornets was the lack of execution. They were 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position and four times saw an inning end with runners stranded on second or third base.
"Situational hitting is something we talk a lot about," Anderson said. "We pride ourselves on that kind of stuff and unfortunately we didn't get it done because of their pitcher making great pitches."
Pankau pitched the complete game for the victory, striking out seven, allowing five runs, three earned and walked one. He was admittedly tired after his pitch count got into the 130s.
"I kind of got a second wind when we got the one or two runs in the sixth and seventh," Pankau said. "That helped a lot."
The Hornets resume play in an elimination game today against Johns Hopkins, the No. 1 team in the country.
"The good thing about this tournament is what we told our players," Anderson said. "You have to win five [games]. Whether you run the table, whether you come out of the loser's bracket it's five wins. It's not going to be easy. We'll have to be on our 'A' game.
"In a tournament, short-term memory is what you've got to have."