New coach, new era: Baseball uses fun, friendship to snag MAC regular season title
When Jordan Bischel took over the Central Michigan baseball team on June 28, 2018, there were many question marks as to how the first-year coach would lead his team.
Two losses at the beginning of the season to Troy inflated those question marks, as Bischel was a coaching product of Division II Northwood University in Midland.
The Chippewas went on to win 12 of the next 13 games, most of them by more than four runs. That included two games of over 20 runs with a 24-7 win on March 2 against Hofstra and a 21-2 victory on March 6 against Saint Peter's.
Now, at 43-12 overall and Mid-American Conference regular season champions with a conference record of 22-5, the Chippewas will have the top seed in the MAC Tournament May 23-26 in Avon, Ohio.
That record was aided by a 15-game winning streak to end the season, which included wins over Western Michigan, Bowling Green and Michigan State, among others.
CMU's winning streak and MAC regular season crown were fueled by a new mentality from Bischel that the program has not seen in a long time.
He wanted to play as a team.
"We talk a lot about functioning as one group, that team mentality versus individuals," Bischel said. "Not that it was a bad thing here before but it's just a constant emphasis on 'we're going to do this as one group.' Freshman, senior, pitcher, hitter, none of that stuff matters, and we're going to gel as a group and these guys have bought into that."
That "gelling" was evident from the outset, at least to CMU fans after the Chippewas' home opener against Grand Valley on March 26. There was fresh energy on the field from the entire roster.
One of the biggest, and more comical, reasons that the Chippewas are finding success – they are having fun. Before most games, players can be seen tossing around a football or playing basketball on a mini hoop taped to a stick that is held up by a player for others to shoot or dunk on.
During the game, while paying attention to the game, guys are in the dugout cracking jokes or even donning costumes. The two fan-favorite costumes are the Santa Claus and Yoda masks.
Senior right fielder Jacob Crum said that while he is locked into the game, there is serious importance placed on the team's "dugout parties."
"It helps to have something like that behind you, you're not taking everything too seriously," Crum said. "You have guys that will make you laugh and keep you up and that's huge in baseball."
In terms of the first to crack a joke, junior right-handed pitcher Zach Kohn is the guy.
"Kohn is the funniest kid I've ever met in my life," Crum said.
The jokes, costumes and dugout antics have brought life to the team that seemed to all start with sophomore right fielder Chase Rollin's viral video of him skating on the sheet of ice that formed over Keilitz Field in January.
Junior right-handed pitcher Jordan Patty said that having fun and staying loose has been a positive change from former coach Steve Jaksa to Bischel.
"We're playing very loose," Patty said. "That really brings out the energy, we're having fun and everything changes. We're playing with more confidence and battling every time we go on the field. That's something we didn't do much last year and we've turned it on this year.
"We're having the time of our lives every time we get to the ballpark."
Another player who understands the need for fun is senior right-hander Pat Leatherman. The Chippewas' ace in 2019 can be seen jumping around the mound and giving fist pumps when a routine play is made. He also has antics of his own on the mound, he will sometimes delay his delivery by just a second to throw the hitter off.
He has the same mindset as Patty. It's that having fun will translate to winning.
"We're enjoying being out here," Leatherman said. "We're enjoying each other's vibes and we're having fun playing the game that we've played our entire life. If you can make that enjoyable for every hour you're here, you're going to be successful on the field. It makes those days when you're grinding out the hours worth it when you can treat these days like a treat."
The end of the regular season has a different meaning for senior second baseman Jason Sullivan. His brother, Tim, appeared in 18 games in his freshman season at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois before a lingering knee injury cut his career short and forced him to retire from the game in April.
Jason said that the emotions of senior day were extrapolated because it was the cap of the baseball careers for him and his brother.
"The Sullivan family is ending an abrupt 2-for-1 deal," Jason said. "It was not only a day for me, but for him as well."
While Sullivan will only play one year for Bischel, he said the first-year coach has created brand at CMU. The type that has trust from the players to their coach.
"We have to remember that this is a kid's game and a game in general," Sullivan said. "To have a coach that says, 'have fun, be rowdy, do fun things' is completely different than striking out and getting reamed for it. Compared to (Bischel) saying, 'you want a hug?' we're like, 'absolutely I'll take a hug.'
"It helps us stick to our process which is why we have so many walks, we trust in him because he trusts in us."