West Xtra: Birko, Pioneers in a groove

COLLEGE BASEBALL

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Point Park's Tom Birko and many of his teammates have been there and almost done that ... but not quite.

The Pioneers (38-13) will be making their second consecutive appearance in the NAIA regional baseball tournament next week and hope to reach the World Series for the second consecutive season.

"There's a different feeling this year," said Birko, a redshirt junior second baseman who grew up in Kennedy and graduated from Montour High School. "Our goal this time is to win it all. Making it there last year was a steppingstone. Last year, maybe we were kind of surprised to be there and we didn't know what to expect. I don't know if we felt like the other teams were so much better than us.

"Now we know we have the talent and are as good as anybody in the tournament."

The 25th-ranked Pioneers, who have won 12 in a row and 29 of their past 31, will find out their opponent and the site of the regional Sunday when the NAIA announces the full bracket for the 45-team, double-elimination event, May 9-13.

Point Park advanced by winning the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship this past weekend at New Albany, Ind. The Pioneers defeated Indiana Southeast in the title game, 8-6, to go 3-0 in the double-elimination tournament.

Birko can pinpoint the date and the reason for Point Park's reversal of fortune. It was March 22 and the Pioneers had just lost a doubleheader to KIAC rival Alice Lloyd College to drop to 9-11.

"We were frustrated. We didn't know what to think," Birko said. "We went back to our hotel that night, somewhere in the mountains of Kentucky, and had a players meeting. We all had something to say and we knew we had to stop worrying about personal things and come together as a team."

Point Park responded with two victories the next day against Alice Lloyd, the beginning of a 16-game win streak.

"We were the same team with the same lineup," he said. "But with different results."

Birko credits much of the turnaround to the maturity of the team, whose average age is 22.

"We've got guys 24. We're a pretty old team," he said. "We're men, honestly. We're stronger than the young teams. We have a lot of confidence and I think we beat some teams just coming off the bus."

Birko's .371 batting average ranks third on a team with a collective .347 that is second in the country. He is second on the team with 39 RBIs, 26 walks ... and 30 strikeouts.

"I strike out looking a lot," he said with a sheepish smile. "I don't know why. If I could cut back my strikeouts, I'd bring my average up a lot. But most of my strikeouts occurred when we were doing terrible."

Birko, who batted leadoff last season, has been either third or sixth in the lineup this year.

"I thrive with people on base," he said. "I love hitting with men on base. I love the pressure."

Birko will receive a degree in sport, art and entertainment management on Saturday and plans to attend graduate school next fall in the MBA program and then play baseball for the Pioneers next spring.

There's a "special pride" in Point Park's success for Birko, one of only a handful of players on the team who call Western Pennsylvania home.

"We want to show people around here that we have a good team, a good program," he said. "We know what it means to grow up around here and stay home to play ball."

Birko, a multi-sport standout in high school, said it was "kind of neat" to play football and soccer at Thomas Birko Stadium that was named for his late grandfather, Thomas J. Birko, who was a football and baseball coach and athletic director at Montour High.

"I never knew him -- he died before I was born," the younger Birko said. "But you have to know it meant a lot to me to be playing in that stadium."

sportscollegedistrict


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