CEDAR RAPIDS - With five of seven matches decided by two goals or less, the late-game stakes have been awfully high this season for the Cedar Rapids Rampage.
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A college baseball team’s cruel twist of fate turned into something unforgettably uplifting.
On May 6, Wartburg defeated Dubuque 5-0 in the first game of a doubleheader in Waverly to clinch the Iowa Conference’s regular-season championship. Taylor Gilson, a senior from Oelwein who was the IIAC’s Pitcher of the Year, hurled a 5-hit, 9-inning shutout for the Knights.
After the last out, Wartburg’s team rushed to the middle of the infield in euphoria, quickly forming a celebratory dogpile.
“I ended up on the bottom, on my side,” Gilson said. “I felt a snap in my collarbone area (of his non-throwing side). I found out it was broken.”
Off to a hospital he went. His team was left to play a second game that day and contemplate what had happened.
“I heard a couple players on the field had tears in their eyes in the first inning,” Gilson said. “It was probably as hard as them as it was on me.”
“It was like the life of the team was grabbed out of us,” said Eric Huber of Eldridge, a fellow senior pitcher and Gilson’s roommate since freshman year. “We had just won the championship, and it felt like the total opposite.”
Gilson had surgery three days later. Two days after that, his team went to Cedar Rapids for the Iowa Conference tournament. It swept three games over three days to win the IIAC’s automatic berth in the NCAA Division III national tourney.
The Knights had been told that week that if they could advance to the NCAA regionals, there would be a chance Gilson could pitch for them there. That put some pep back in them.
But Joel Holst, Wartburg’s baseball coach of 22 years, had concerns.
“Taylor has an 8-inch scar from his neck to his shoulder,” Holst said. “I’m going ‘Jeepers! Is it even right to think we could use him?’ But our trainer, Danny Drees, said he thought we could if we got to regional.”
“I thought (Drees) was kidding at first,” Gilson said. “But then he explained to me that others have had that surgery and come back in a few weeks. I wasn’t sure about it, but I started rehabbing and felt better.
“I went to Cedar Rapids with the team and watched the conference tournament. Fortunately, we won that and got our conference’s automatic bid (in the NCAAs). If the opportunity came to pitch in the regionals, I knew there was a chance I could throw.”
Gilson did some bullpen throwing eight days after his surgery, on the day before Wartburg began regional play in Sauget, Ill. The Knights won their first game of the double-elimination event, then lost the following day.
On the third day, Holst gave Gilson the baseball against St. Louis’ Washington University.
“Mentally, I was able to pitch like normal,” Gilson said. “Physically, I was 70, 75 percent ready. Once I was on the mound for the first pitch, I felt pretty good. After that, I went forward like normal.”
But this wasn’t normal. A player who had three screws and a plate inserted in his shoulder 11 days earlier pitched seven innings. Seven shutout innings.
“It was,” Holst said, “one of the most-amazing things I’ve seen in coaching.”
“It was awesome,” Huber said. “I wasn’t surprised, knowing what he’s capable of. But it was still amazing to see.”
“It was kind of incredible to me, too,” said Gilson.
The game was 0-0 after seven innings when Holst determined Gilson’s 105 pitches were enough. Wartburg eventually won in 12 innings, 1-0.
The Knights had another game immediately following, a loss against Birmingham Southern that eliminated them from a shot at the D-III World Series. Still, they went home knowing they had been part of a pretty big victory.
Gilson won 24 games in his Wartburg career. But nothing he had previously done compared to this.
Said Holst: “I told Taylor I didn’t think I’d seen anybody do what he just did. He spun a very negative thing and tried to make it as positive as he could. It turned out about as well as you could expect.”
Holst called Gilson “a good leader, a hard worker. He gave very positive things for our younger guys to emulate. He’s a really sharp kid, a pretty special kid.”
Gilson said he’s considering job options and is considering attending graduate school in sports management. He had planned to go to western Canada to play for the Regina Red Sox in a summer collegiate league. But after his injury, he’s settling for those last seven superb innings.
“My body’s still recovering,” he said. “I’m mentally and emotionally drained right now. It’s nice to take a step back.
“I keep getting people saying ‘Dude, how’d you do that?’ I just didn’t want being helped off the field with a broken collarbone to be my last moment as a Knight.
The Knight got back on the horse, and ... “It’s something I’ll remember the rest of my life.”