A Chapman champion

Larry Radloff/
Mack Cheli proudly hoists the national championship trophy his Chapman University baseball team won this month.

Those championship dogpiles are starting to pile up for Mack Cheli.

Three years ago, the Los Altos native celebrated winning the Central Coast Section Open Division final with his St. Francis High baseball team. Two weeks ago, he was rushing the mound again – this time to revel in Chapman University’s title-clinching victory in the NCAA Division III College World Series.

“It was incredible,” said Cheli, whose Panthers (44-11) swept Birmingham-Southern College (42-15) in the championship series. “Definitely a lifetime memory.”

Making it even more memorable: The pile of players included two other St. Francis alums.

“I was able to dogpile with them after winning CCS, too,” Cheli said of fellow sophomore Kyle Joye and freshman Cooper Foard. “I’ve known Kyle since I was 11. It was super special to share that moment with two fellow Lancers.”

Especially after what Chapman went through to get this far. The Panthers took an improbable path to the top, emerging from the losers bracket of the eight-team tournament to claim their first national title in 16 years and third in school history.

“You don’t want to be in the losers bracket in the World Series,” Cheli said, “because the road back is a tough one.”

The loss came on the second day of the event, held May 31 through June 4 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After opening with a 6-3 win over Washington & Jefferson College – a game in which designated hitter Cheli had two hits and two RBIs – the Panthers fell 10-6 to the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Chapman bounced back the next day by defeating both Washington & Jefferson and UMass Boston by 8-4 scores. Cheli scored a run in the first game and his team won the second – giving UMass Boston its first loss of the tourney – in extra innings.

“It was a dogfight – back and forth,” said Cheli, intentionally walked in the 10th and at second when UMass Boston walked in the decisive run, the first of four Chapman scored in the frame. “After winning such a hard-fought game, we felt like, ‘We got this (title).’”

The Panthers faced UMass Boston the next day as well and again prevailed 8-4. Cheli played a pivotal role in the victory, which sent Chapman to the championship series against Birmingham-Southern. After hitting a single to score a run in the second, he drilled an RBI triple in the fifth and then stole home on a suicide squeeze to give the Panthers a commanding 8-2 lead over UMass Boston.

“That was one of my biggest memories of the World Series,” Cheli said. “If you told me that at 6(-foot-)4 and about 225 pounds that I would be the one guy on the team to steal home in the World Series, I wouldn’t believe it – it’s laughable and funny. It was awesome.”

Head coach Scott Laverty said his Panthers “take pride in being aggressive,” and he praised Cheli for making it home despite the batter at the plate missing the ball.

“It was pretty neat,” Laverty said. “He got a good jump, the ball was in the dirt and kicked away, and he slid in.”

The best-of-three championship series began a day later, June 4, and Chapman took the opener 6-4. Cheli singled.

“Getting a hit in the College World Series was awesome,” he said. “It was super cool.”

Cheli was even more excited about what happened later that day. Chapman crushed Birmingham-Southern 11-0 to claim the crown.

“There was a huge dogpile and tears of joy,” Cheli said of the celebration after the final out. “In the moment, we were shocked and in awe that we won everything. It’s a childhood dream, and I’ll never forget it.”

Laverty said his players “battled their tails off” to realize that dream. He noted that Cheli, a catcher by trade who moved to first base this year out of necessity and served as DH throughout the playoffs, exemplified the commitment it took to become champion.

“He’s a great team player,” Laverty said, “and he had some really clutch hits for us.”

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