FRESNO -- Fresno Pacific outfielder Dwight Nixon of Modesto gets "goose bumps" thinking about opening the NAIA World Series today against three-time champion Lewis-Clark State in front of an expected crowd of 5,000.
Teammate Daniel Brodie of Oakdale described the Sunbirds' first national championship tourney as "surreal."
"What makes this so awesome," the senior pitcher said, "is how far we've come in so short a time."
Four local players -- Nixon, Brodie, Oakdale's Joey Norwood and Modesto's John Lampros -- are on the Fresno Pacific baseball team vying for an NAIA crown in Lewiston, Idaho, this weekend.
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Fresno Pacific's first year of baseball was 2006. The team had no home field -- playing at 12 different sites -- and coach Oscar Hirschkorn and his staff scrambled to put together a team. The Sunbirds posted two losing seasons as a vagabond team playing home games at local high schools, Chukchansi Park, Fresno City College and Fresno State.
"It was kind of embarrassing," Brodie said. "We'd practice in the mornings or until 11:30 at night in rain and on unraked fields. At times I wondered: What did we get ourselves into?"
The turnaround came in 2008, the year Fresno Pacific built a diamond on campus.
Hirschkorn was able to pluck better recruits, and players had quick access to the field and batting cages to hone their skills.
"That," Hirschkorn said, "made all the difference in the world."
Fresno Pacific went 36-14 and made its first appearance in the NAIA tournament.
This year the team is 38-19, and it looked like another cup of coffee in the NAIA playoffs after a 12-11 loss to Madonna out of the gate.
Then something magical happened -- almost as freakish as unranked Fresno State's run to the NCAA title last year.
The Sunbirds stared down five elimination games and won the Sioux City, Iowa, regional to qualify as one of 10 teams for the World Series in Lewiston, Idaho -- home of this week's opponent.
"The toughness and character this team showed. ... It was amazing to watch," Hirschkorn said.
Nixon, playing with a torn thumb ligament, batted .667 at the regional. Fresno Pacific beat Bellevue 10-1 for the regional title.
"This isn't your typical team," Nixon said. "We've got 100 different personalities. But they mesh perfectly."
During a rough patch in late April, the players met at a teammate's house and shaved their heads into mohawks and mullets.
"It didn't make us play any better," Brodie said, "but it bonded us, made us a team that respects each other and shows accountability."
The Sunbirds square off against Lewis-Clark confident their regional performance was no fluke. They traveled to Lewiston last month and took two of four games from the Warriors.
"I don't know if we can pull off what Fresno State did," Hirschkorn said. "But I'll tell you what: We really hit the ball, so if we get pitching, this will be a tough team to beat."