Nighthawks Triple Down For Third GNAC Championships Title
Northwest Nazarene won its third GNAC Championships title in program history by taking a 5-1 victory over Western Oregon in a must-win game at Dehler Park in Billings. | Photos By Hayden Foltz
Northwest Nazarene won its third GNAC Championships title in program history by taking a 5-1 victory over Western Oregon in a must-win game at Dehler Park in Billings. | Photos By Hayden Foltz
Bryan Rojas was named the GNAC Championships MVP after leading the Nigthhawks at the plate and on the mound.
Bryan Rojas was named the GNAC Championships MVP after leading the Nigthhawks at the plate and on the mound.

Saturday, May 11, 2024
by Thomas Lal

BILLINGS, Mont.  – After finishing runner-up to Western Oregon for two consecutive years, Northwest Nazarene might have felt that its time was finally due.

The No. 1 seed Nighthawks made that redemption a reality on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Billing as they defeated the No. 2 seed Wolves 5-1 to put the final touches on their third GNAC Championships title in program history and the team’s first since 2021. The day was monumental for Northwest Nazarene in several ways as it also broke the program record for wins in a season while moving to 36-13-1 on the year and head coach Joe Schaefer claimed his 500th career victory between NNU and Point Loma.

Two-way player Bryan Rojas was named the GNAC Championships MVP for his body of work across both days of the tournament. The junior from Provo, Utah, opened his tournament by earning the win on the mound for the Nighthawks in their 16-6 victory over Central Washington on Friday. The right-hander threw the first six innings against the Wildcats, tallying four strikeouts while allowing three runs, two earned, on seven hits and three walks to move to 4-0 on the season.

Rojas also hit in the Nighthawks’ first game of the tournament, punching an RBI-double in the seventh inning. Across the tournament, Rojas was the most reliable batter for NNU, going 7-for-16 for a .438 batting average and racking up four RBIs and three runs scored with two doubles and a walk while also providing perfect defense for the Nighthawks across 28 chances between the bump and first base.

 The path to the title wasn’t a simple one, however, Western Oregon battled back from a 5-4 NNU win the night before to take the first game of the day 4-3. Championship Saturday at Dehler Park was full of intrigue from the start as both teams gave the opening nod to pitchers with just three starts on the year. It was the Wolves who came out punching hardest to begin the day as Ayden Holker struck out the first four batters he faced on the way to picking up five strikeouts across four innings of work. The Western Oregon offense backed up Holker in the bottom of the first inning, tacking the first run of the game on the board courtesy of an Owen Bischoff single that brought Curran Mitzel around to score after he hit a leadoff double and took third base on a wild pitch.

Blake Hammond got the nod for Northwest Nazarene and followed the one-run first frame with two shutout innings. Holker matched Hammond’s pace through the second and third innings before the two teams combined for five runs in the fourth frame. Despite timely RBIs by NNU’s Trevor Tishenkel and Rojas in the top of the inning to give the Nighthawks their first lead of the day, it was Western Oregon’s Tyler Mohler who changed the game with a single swing of the bat as he launched a three-run home run over the right field fence and gave WOU a 4-2 lead.

Hammond stayed in the game until the sixth inning for NNU and was tagged with the loss after allowing four runs on seven hits while striking out five. Western Oregon reliever Devin Bell earned the win on the mound after entering in the fifth and finishing the game with one run allowed on three hits and two walks while striking out four.

The finale of the GNAC Championships featured perhaps the finest pitching of the entire tournament as a dominant six innings from Kailer Saunders put the Nighthawks firmly on the path to victory. Saunders retired nine of the first 11 batters he faced on the way to earning the win on the mound to improve to 6-2 on the season while Western Oregon’s Jacob Memmott was tagged with the loss after just 1.1 innings of work. Saunders finished his day with no runs allowed and five strikeouts while conceding four hits and two walks.

It was Rojas who gave the Nighthawks the lead that they would never relinquish in the bottom of the second inning. Tishenkel and Duke Pahukoa got the frame going initially as the ¥both singled and brought Rojas up to the plate for the first time in the game with just one out, forcing Memmott out of the game and WOU reliever Shane Bailey onto the mound. Rojas made no mistake as he took the second pitch he saw and fired it straight back up the middle to bring Tishenkel home.

That proved to be just the first time that Tishenkel and Rojas delivered clutch at-bats in the championships finale. Rojas doubled the lead just two innings later on a hard-hit single that snuck through the right side of the infield and brought Adam Paganelli around to score from second following a leadoff double by the left-fielder. Rojas finished the final game of the day 2-for-4 at the plate with two RBIs and a run scored after reigning GNAC Freshman of the Year Carter Walsh drove him across the plate later in the same inning to make the score 3-0 for the Nighthawks.

Tishenkel tacked on an insurance run in his next at-bat, blasting a no-doubt solo shot to right field off of Western Oregon reliever Owen Murdock. The home run highlighted Tishenkel’s day at the plate as he finished the game 2-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored. Pahukoa got in on the scoring as well, shooting an RBI-single to left field in the bottom of the seventh to score Cole Calnon from third base.

From the top of the seventh on, it was the conference leader in saves, Wade Duncan, who shut the door once again for the Nighthawks. Duncan earned his ninth save of the season with three critical innings of work down the stretch and allowed just one run on five hits while striking out one. Duncan’s ninth save wasn’t the only impressive defensive highlight of the final innings, however.

The biggest defensive moment of the tournament actually resulted from some initial trouble for Wade as he faced WOU catcher AJ Cortese with runners on first and second, no outs and one run already home in the inning. That’s when he lured Cortese into hitting a ground ball sharply to Pahukoa who calmly took a step to his left on the third base bag then sent the ball around the horn, hitting Gavin Brubaker at second and Rojas at first to complete the triple play and snuff out any Western Oregon momentum.

With the GNAC Championships title in hand, Northwest Nazarene receives the conference’s automatic berth to the NCAA West Region Championships. Western Oregon (29-21) will have to wait until Sunday’s NCAA selection show at 7:30 p.m. (Pacific) to see if it will earn an at-large berth.