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Members of the 1983 Lubbock Christian University baseball team hold up their fingers in the “We’re No. 1” salute as well as the NAIA championship banner after winning the national title on its home turf.

First Champions

LCU stunned NAIA power to capture its first national baseball title

BY Don Williams
For the Avalanche-Journal

Ed Cheff recently won his 16th national championship in 32 years of coaching baseball at NAIA power Lewis-Clark State in Lewiston, Idaho.

Better than most of those teams, Cheff believes, were his Warriors of 1983. They might have been one of his three or four best clubs, Cheff says today, but they didn’t win the national title to prove it.

Twenty-five years ago this month, the Warriors came to Lubbock, and Lubbock Christian University took down Lewis-Clark in the last of three NAIA World Series played at what’s now Hays Field.

Though LCU has had 12 50-win seasons, the 1983 team remains the school’s only NAIA World Series champion.

“I’ve always liked Larry (Hays) a lot,’’ Cheff said last week. “I have a lot of respect for him as a coach and a person. I liked his kids, liked the way they played. They had a great mentality, and I think the community was into it pretty good.”

At the time, it wasn’t ratings suicide for major-college teams to risk their records against small-college powers, so LCU loaded its schedule with series against Southwest Conference teams.

In 1983, the Chaps tuned up to host the tournament by taking a road trip to play series at Rice, UT-Pan American and the University of Texas.

A year later, they would win two of three at Arizona State and three of four at Texas. During their national championship season, the Chaps won all six games they played against Texas Tech.

“There was no difference in NAIA and Division I, so Larry was getting those teams that just were loaded,’’ said Bob Fannin, a Chaps assistant coach who was a slugging first baseman on the 1983 and 1984 teams. “It was just as prestigious to play at Lubbock Christian as it was to play at Texas or Arizona State or Miami or USC … anywhere.’’

By early June 1983, the Chaps felt they could match up with any team.

“We got a chance to play some quality teams, and I just think that helped us out because we were relaxed,’’ said infielder Gary Hix, who has coached the last five years at Amarillo High after 15 seasons at Canyon.

On June 6, 1983, before a crowd of 3,468, LCU beat Lewis-Clark 12-9 in the title game. Freshman pitcher Rick Dillman from Monterey got the final two outs, striking out NAIA player of the year Jim O’Dell to end it.

The day before, a Steve Coleman home run helped LCU beat Lewis-Clark 4-3 to force the “if-necessary’’ final game. Two days prior, the Warriors downed the Chaps 18-17. Lewis-Clark, which finished 69-7, had come in as tested as LCU.

“All my Pac 10 (Conference) buddies told me they were the best team on the West Coast,’’ Hays said. “They had beaten everyone on the West Coast, Division I teams and all that.’’

The Chaps, who finished 56-27 against their own stacked schedule, were about as well-constructed a team.

Coleman, a Monterey alumnus who played third base and catcher, had transferred to LCU from Oklahoma.

Lubbock Christian University baseball players pile onto each other to celebrate winning the 1983 NAIA baseball championship.

Fannin, also a Monterey ex, signed with Alabama out of Ranger Junior College. But the summer between his sophomore and junior years, Fannin played for Hays on the old Lubbock Hubbers and decided he’d be just as happy playing at home. He asked for and received his release from the Crimson Tide.

Middle infielder Randy Velarde became the biggest name of the 1983 bunch by going on to a 16-year career in the major leagues.

But like many title winners, Hays said pitching made the difference. Bob Hinson, a transfer from Texas, went 16-5, tying a school single-season victories record that still stands, and Levelland product David Bulls posted a 13-5 record, the last three wins coming in the NAIA World Series. Bulls won 7-1 and 4-0 games and got the decision in relief in the series finale.

Hays said Hinson and Bulls both were good enough to be part of any three-man rotation he ever assembled.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever had a (Nos.) 1 and 2 (starting pitchers) like that,’’ said Hays, who recently retired after 38 seasons.

In addition to the pitching, the 1983 team had the depth to go all the way. First baseman Rich Wieligman and designated hitter Hector Limon were two of the best hitters. But Wieligman missed much of the season with a broken ankle, being available just to pinch hit in the World Series, and Limon was injured leading up to the series.

Fannin stepped in for Wieligman for much of the season and delivered 28 home runs, usually batting fourth or fifth.

Hix took over at DH in the World Series, had a game in which he scored five runs, and came through with some key hits.

According to the old Chaps and their coach, there wasn’t an easy out in the lineup. Left fielder Randy Ledbetter batting second, right fielder Chet Feldman batting third and catcher Ed Jeffrey batting sixth “were guys that could really hit the ball the other way,’’ Hays said.

“Fannin, who has been current LCU coach Nathan Blackwood’s batting instructor the last five years, called Ledbetter, another Monterey alum, “probably the best pure hitter I’ve ever seen.’’

“He was unlike anybody I’ve seen or like we’ve had in the past five years,’’ Fannin said. “The guy could just hit. When he was best was kind of in a tournament or something. Like in a 9:30 game in the morning, Ledbetter would go 5-for-5 while everybody else was just trying to wake up.’’

For much of the season, Hix bided his time in the middle infield where Dan O’Connor and Velarde both could play either shortstop or second base.

Hays has said that O’Connor was one of his best, if not the best, defensive shortstop on artificial turf that he ever coached.

“There’s no doubt about that,’’ Hix said. “It was one of those deals where Dan O’Connor played shortstop when we were at home playing on the Astroturf, and if we were on the road, Velarde played (shortstop) when we were on grass.’’

Completing the 1983 Chaps’ strength up the middle was Mike Rivera, a center fielder who came to LCU from an Arizona junior college. After his LCU years, Rivera remained close to the game tending stadium grounds for the San Francisco Giants during their spring-training stays in Scottsdale, Ariz.

He was far from the only member of the 1983 team to stay in the game.

At least six are coaches — Coleman at Hardin-Simmons, Fannin at LCU, Wieligman at Oklahoma State (softball), Hix at Amarillo High School, Limon at Estacado and Travis Walden, a former Tech assistant who recently took over at Trinity Christian.

Phil Bryant, another pitcher on the national championship team, also has coached at LCU and at Lubbock Christian High.

“Every one of those guys wanted to be out there, wanted to be on the field,’’ Wieligman said. “That’s why we still coach is that’s where we want to be. We want to be on the field. That was a lot of success (in 1983), and (when) you take you take away a national championship, that could help keep you out there a lot longer.’’

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SPECIAL SECTIONS: 1909-1933 / 1934-1958 / 1959-1983 / 1984-PRESENT | PRINT VERSION