Nick Newburg was double-booked on May 12.
A first baseman/pitcher for the University of Wisconsin club baseball team, Newburg chose to join his teammates at the Great Lakes Regional in Battle Creek, Michigan.
The event the former Madison Memorial athlete chose to skip that Saturday? His commencement ceremony at Camp Randall Stadium.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Newburg, who graduated with a degree in accounting and will pursue a master’s degree at UW. “I didn’t even think twice about it.”
Newburg, whose father Mark was a center for the UW men’s basketball team from 1976 to 1980, wasn’t alone. His teammate, Austin Mullins, also chose spikes and stirrups over a cap and gown. It was somewhat fitting Newburg and Mullins teamed up on the mound the following day to help UW beat Michigan State and clinch a spot in the National Club Baseball Association Division 1 World Series.
UW (18-2), the No. 5 seed, will open against Grand Canyon on Saturday in Holly Springs, North Carolina. The rest of the eight-team field includes Oregon, Texas A&M, East Carolina, Penn State, Florida State and Iowa State.
Jeff Block helped start the program in 1999, about eight years after UW, attempting to climb out of a deep financial hole, dropped baseball as a varsity sport. This is UW’s fourth trip to the Division 1 World Series, and its second team has made three appearances in the NCBA’s Division 2 World Series in that span.
It didn’t surprise Block in the least that Newburg and Mullins chose to be in Michigan with their teammates rather than remain in Madison with their classmates.
“That just shows you how much they care,” Block said. “That’s how much this team and the experience means to them.”
The 2017-18 season began in the fall with more than 100 players trying out for the two teams and Block quietly optimistic UW could get over the hump and return to the World Series for the first time since 2014.
Offense wasn’t a concern, with Newburg and others returning from a lineup that reached regionals last season. The order got a boost when Jared Eichorst joined the team after enrolling at UW.
Eichorst, who played in Little League with Newburg and again for two seasons at Memorial, wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he transferred from Madison Area Technical College. He picked his former teammate’s brain about the UW club program and decided to give it a try.
Eichorst, who is hitting a team-best .468 while playing right field, is glad he did.
“This has been one of the greatest experiences I’ve had playing baseball my whole life,” Eichorst said.
Eichorst wasn’t the only newcomer who has given UW a boost.
Ryan Gassner, who was an All-State pitcher at Marathon High School, joined the team and quickly established himself as the staff’s ace.
Gassner, who turned down opportunities to play college baseball at the Division II and III levels, sat out last season as a freshman so he could focus on academics. In his debut season at UW, he’s 6-0 with a 1.15 ERA and 64 strikeouts in 39 innings.
The bad news for UW: Gassner is one of two key players who will miss the trip to North Carolina.
Gassner is studying abroad in Africa over the summer, while starting second baseman Brian Mariska had a previously scheduled trip to South America with his family that caused him to miss the entire postseason.
“That’s the tough part about being a club coach is you have to realize there are a lot of other pieces that go into this,” Block said. “They’re playing for love of the game, but they also have other things going on in their lives.”
Block, who manages the team and also serves as the club’s general manager, has been working to secure funding that will help with the trip to the World Series. The club holds fundraisers throughout the year and gets significant help from the Dugout Club in Madison, and Block has been reaching out to former players for donations that will be used for hotel expenses and other costs.
Still, the players pay their own way to North Carolina. Newburg is part of a group that will fly out on Friday but, just as was the case with choosing regionals over graduation, this decision was a no-brainer.
“At the end of the day,” Newburg said, “I wouldn’t want to be anywhere but with my team.”