Speaking of Sports: Earning a Seat at the Tableby Brent Harris, Director of Sports Information
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Led by record-breaking performances by Matt Dodaro and Jake Thomas and inspired by Little Giant Hall of Famer John Panozzo ’89, the Wabash baseball team rose into the upper ranks of the North Central Athletic Conference.
When Wabash joined the North Coast Athletic Conference in 1999, the Little Giants’ competition jumped to a higher level in almost every sport.
The football team responded by winning the first of its five NCAC Championships in its second year in the conference. The basketball team battled Wooster for the NCAC crown in its inaugural season. Swimming, track, and cross country have all earned top-three spots in their respective championships.
Now the Wabash baseball team has joined that list, tying for first place this spring in the NCAC’s Western Division.
The rise to the top has broken Wabash baseball records, but it’s also been inspired by one of those former record holders.
Current seniors Matt Dodaro and Jake Thomas spent the past four years rewriting the record book. Dodaro became the Little Giants’ shortstop the second he walked on campus. Since his rookie season, he’s started every game at short, compiling nearly every offensive and defensive notable along the way.
Thomas posted one of the best sophomore seasons ever seen at Wabash. He set the school’s hit record while batting .424 for the year and earning First Team All-NCAC and Mid-East Region Second Team honors. The combination of the two on the field started showing Wabash fans a glimpse of what the program might be able to accomplish.
While Thomas was chasing the single-season hits record, Dodaro—his best friend since the two students arrived on campus—was in the hunt for the same mark. Thomas won the race, but during that season the duo had the opportunity to meet another Little Giant who knew something about chasing records.
John Panozzo ’89 was nearly unstoppable at the plate his junior season at Wabash. The Wabash Athletics Hall of Fame inductee collected 49 hits during 1988 to hit a remarkable .471, a record that still stands. The Little Giants won 21 games in that 1988 season.
When Panozzo, now a physician in Colorado, learned of the record-setting efforts of Thomas and Dodaro via emails from Head Baseball Coach Cory Stevens, he reached out to the two players.
“I told them that records are nice, but the accomplishments of your team are the things you will always carry with you,” Panozzo recalls. “I knew the goal for the team was to make the conference tournament. That accomplishment doesn’t come because you set a record. It comes with winning baseball games.”
The words hit home for both players.
“When I heard Dr. Panozzo say that, I knew it was true,” Dodaro says. “I’ve seen the members of the Wabash football team after they’ve won a conference championship. I want to be a part of that. The records are nice, but I want to be with my teammates celebrating a conference championship.”
“We broke a lot of records in 2007, but we only won 14 games overall and only six conference games. I knew we had the type of players who could come together as a team and win a conference title.”
“I think the fact that Matt and I both want a conference championship has been key to our success,” Thomas says. “I’ve never felt any pressure to chase records. Getting caught up in a numbers chase can actually hurt you and your team in the long run.”
The hard work came for Dodaro and Thomas came on and off the field.
“Those two guys are great leaders for this baseball team,” Stevens said. “They are vocal when they need to be, they lead by example, and they bring high levels of both fun and seriousness to the team.
“No one has more fun playing baseball than Matt Dodaro and Jake Thomas. But when it’s time to go to play ball, they are always ready to go.”
This season the records and team accomplishments went hand-in-hand. The Little Giants secured a berth in the tournament and posted more than 20 wins for the second year in a row.
And Jake Thomas was right about the records. On the way to the division title, Thomas broke his own single-season hits record while becoming the first Wabash player in school history to collect more than 60 hits in a season and more than 190 in a career.
Dodaro took over the all-time records for RBI, doubles, and home runs as the two players provided a devastating offensive attack on opposing pitchers.
While the conference title did not come this year, Thomas and Dodaro have raised the expectations of Wabash baseball fans and of their conference opponents. The Little Giant diamondmen have joined their brethren in Wabash sports who have tasted success in the North Coast Athletic Conference. The baseball team once again has a seat at the table.