Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- The final season for UMHB baseball’s five graduating seniors did not go as planned. But then again, the four years that Rahul Champaneri, Alex Palczewski, Robert McCall, Russell Valada, and Zack Honey spent with the Cru did not play out as they were projected to.
Right out of the gate, Covid swiftly ended their freshman years in Belton after just 15 games.
As sophomores, the team, under second-year head coach Mike Stawski entered the season picked to finish 10th in the American Southwest Conference. In reality, they qualified for the ASC Tournament as one of the league’s top eight teams, and took down Concordia for the program’s first win.
As juniors, they won twice in the conference tournament, continuing to raise expectations for the program. So much so, that missing the conference tournament–something commonplace for the program a decade ago–was seen as a disappointment when UMHB’s season ended in a 15-4 loss to Sul Ross State on April 28.
“Without seniors like this, who have been here from the start, stayed with it, and bought into a new regime, we wouldn’t be where we are,” Stawski said. “When I walked in, they walked in.”
Palczewski was one of the first players Stawski recruited when he arrived in Belton, and convinced the Fort Worth native to give UMHB a shot. Four years later, Palczewski–who made 46 appearances as relief pitcher for the Cru–is thankful he picked up a “random” call from Stawski one summer afternoon.
“I was committed to Ball State in July of 2019 and I got a random call from a Chicago number,” Palczewski said after the season finale. “It was Coach Stawski. He talked to me a little bit, said he knew a lot about me, and asked if I wanted to play. My heart was definitely set on playing.
“This program has given me so much. I met my wife here. Three of my groomsmen are on this team. I pitched in probably the biggest game. Being a part of this program, growing with the coaches as well as they grew with us was great. Couldn’t ask for anything else.”
Honey also spoke with Stawski shortly after his hiring, but Honey was in a unique position, as a left-handed relief pitcher with a sidearm motion who had committed to the previous coaching staff. When a new coach comes in, he often brings with him “his recruits” and players who fit the system he is aiming to employ.
But Honey says Stawski did quite the opposite.
“I had no idea who he was,” Honey recalls. “But the first thing he said to me was really comforting to hear. He said, ‘We’re not going to bring in a bunch of guys to take your job immediately. You’re all freshmen to us. We want to see what you’ve got and we’re excited for you to get on campus and prove your skills.’
“I threw very unique and had a very unique skill set that was different from the rest of the pitching staff during my time here. So it was really nice to hear I wasn’t going to be counted out on day one. There are definitely programs who wouldn’t accept the way I pitch, but here, I felt like I got significantly better over my three years.”
Honey’s senior season stat line reads all zeros. He never made a single appearance on the mound in 2023 due to an injury and yet, found a way to adjust in his role, serving as a student assistant coach.
“It was really humbled that they asked me to still be a part of it,” Honey said. “I was going to try any way to make an impact. I love the game. I’m actually pursuing a career in college coaching now.
“After I got hurt, the first person I went to was Coach Stawski, and I asked him, ‘How can I help?’” All I wanted to do was help the young guys and give back to the game everything it has given me.”
Champaneri was also committed to a collegiate program when Stawski got the UMHB job. A Chicago-area product, Champaneri had committed to Stawski, then the head coach at D-III power Concordia-Chicago. Once his future head coach headed south, the Mundelein, Illinois native decided to explore his options in Texas as well.
“I looked at the baseball program at Concordia and compared it [to UMHB],” Champaneri said. “Within that itself, I would have said ‘no’ to coming here, but I came on campus for my visit. But the campus itself, the facilities, the guys who were already here…all that combined, I think it overdid anything Concordia had going for it.”
Champaneri dealt with his own hint of adversity in Belton, suffering an injury that kept him out for the 2021 season’s entirety. He started four games in the shortened 2020 season, but it was not until a season ago that he emerged in a defined starting role, taking the mound in 14 starts. He tossed 53.0 innings, a career high, and earned ASC Co-Pitcher of the Week honors after striking out 11 in a win over Sul Ross State. But it ended up being the family-type atmosphere that stuck out through all four of his years in the Lone Star State.
“It has meant everything,” he said minutes after the senior day ceremony. “It truly was a family. All these guys are going to be at my wedding. These guys are going to meet my kids. It means the world to me. I’ve been through everything with them.”
Palczewski had a similar message as he walked away from the bullpen for the final time in his career. With his gear in hand, and a bittersweet sense of emotion and gratitude, the right-hander thought back to the early years of Stawski’s time as head coach, and the legacy he hopes to leave behind.
“We had to adapt,” Palczewski recalled. “Everyone was a freshman again, because we had a new coaching staff. It took a collective effort. Once we got to our sophomore and junior year, it was easier for those younger guys to pick up the culture. The freshmen this year have been great. I have so many best friends that are still on this team, so I’m going to be out here for as many games as possible in the future.”
The future does appear bright for a squad that brings back nearly every position player heading into the 2024 season. And a pitching staff that is composed of mostly underclassmen.
“These five guys, their impact is going to be long-lasting,” Stawski said, “because of what they’ve done for the freshmen, sophomores, and juniors who are coming back. We’re going to see their fingerprints on this program for years to come.
“It’s always the power of compounding for me. Those guys have impacted players on our team, and then those guys will impact the freshmen who come in next year. And that’s what’s special about this group. They’ve touched a lot of lives, including the coaching staff, and no matter what kind of record we had this season, that will never be taken away from this group.”
For Valada, the impact the program made on him as a player is a testament to that. A native of Austin, he pitched in 14 games during his career and said on Wednesday that he believes his time on the roster “truly prepared me for my life following graduation.”
“Coach Stawski pushed me and my teammates to be our best on and off the field,” he added. “He wanted to create a program with a foundation centered around excellence and he did just that.”
Losing 15-4 on senior day ended up being far from the result the Crusaders had wanted. That fact was not overlooked postgame, and the disappointment was understood. But Stawski reiterated that, while he and his players had hoped for more in 2023, the Cru still accomplished plenty, including in off-the-field endeavors.
“This program has achieved a lot this year. We have the second highest GPA in the school, we did over 400 hours of community service. Just little things like that, that won’t show up on a box score or record.”
“I told them, ‘10 years from now, you won’t remember the score of this game. You’ll remember that we played a season and maybe your last year didn’t go as planned, but you won’t remember this game. But you’ll remember being with these guys, and what senior day is about. You’ll remember your last year on campus because of the impacts you made.”