May 18: Slump - and Fence - Buster

Tom Wippler parlays homeruns and defense to spark Tommies as NCAA regional play opens in Wisconsin

Tom Wippler sure knows how to break out of a slump.

The St. Thomas senior first baseman led off the top of the 11th inning on Saturday afternoon with his team tied 6-6 against Concordia in an elimination game of the MIAC playoff tournament in Dundas. Wippler was 0 for 4 on the day and 2 for 12 in the tournament.

“I was just trying to get on base, and I told myself to swing as hard as I can,” he said after the game. “I was struggling at the plate, so my attitude was, ‘See ball, hit ball.’ He (the pitcher) left a changeup up and out, and that was it.”

The slump was over. Wippler’s blast to right-center easily cleared the fence and gave the Tommies a 7-6 lead. They held on to win, and then defeated Augsburg 17-1 and 19-9 to add the playoff title to their regular-season championship and bump their record to 33-7.

Wippler made sure the Concordia homer was no one-swing oddity. An hour later against the Auggies, he went 3 for 4 with six RBI and four runs scored, hitting a double in the first, a two-run homer in the second and his first career grand slam in the seventh. Augsburg held him hitless on Sunday in six trips to the plate, but he worked three straight walks, scored twice and had an RBI.

The combination of Wippler’s steady bat and defense – he has had only two errors this year on 372 chances (357 putouts and 15 assists) for a .995 fielding average – was a big factor in St. Thomas’ success this season. Those factors, his experience as a four-year starter and his leadership will be influential in how far the Tommies advance in the NCAA playoffs; they open play at 1 p.m. Wednesday against Carthage in the Midwest regional tournament in Whitewater, Wis.

“Tom is one of the most vocal leaders we have,” said Coach Chris Olean, “He takes that upon himself. “A lot of hitting is confidence. If you go up there and feel good about yourself, everything falls into place.”

Wippler couldn’t agree more with his coach.

“As a hitter, confidence is a huge advantage,” he said. “I just try to hit balls in the gaps. I have tried to be a doubles hitter. Dennis Denning (who coached Wippler for three years before retiring) used to say, ‘We need a double, Tom,’ and when I got one, I felt pretty good.”

Wippler has had reason to feel good his entire St. Thomas career. The finance major played football, hockey and baseball at Sauk Rapids High School, where his dad is an assistant baseball coach this year, and decided to focus on baseball as a Tommie. He played shortstop in high school but the first base position was open with the graduation of Sean Young, and Wippler fit in early.

He started 36 games as a freshman and 167 during his career, with a .339 batting average. He has 70 extra-base hits – including 51 doubles – and a .995 fielding average based on 1,368 putouts, 75 assists and just 7 errors. This year, he is hitting .312 and has career highs in RBI (41), doubles (16) and homers (5), thanks to the big weekend in Dundas.

“I pride myself on my defense as much as anything,” he said. “In high school, I wasn’t the best defensively and was more of a hitter. Dennis always kept me in my for defense, and I know Chris feels the same way.”

“Awesome,” Olean replied when asked to describe Wippler’s defense, noting that he won a new MIAC award – the Gold Glove – this season at first base. “He makes the entire infield defense better. He’s one of the best first basemen we’ve ever had. He’s steady – not flashy, but he has better range than people think.”

As Wippler sat in the Grill late Monday afternoon, he reflected on how fast four years have gone by. He had just finished his only two finals, in Fixed Income Securities and in Money and Banking, and has worked for three years in the corporate legal expense area at US Bank. He’ll be back there again this summer and hopes to land a full-time job there.

First, though, he has some business to take care of on the baseball field. He knows the Tommies, as defending national champions, have had big bulls-eyes on their backs all year long, and he thinks they have responded well under the never-ending pressure.

More recently, especially last weekend after a first-game MIAC playoff loss to Augsburg, he has felt a different kind of pressure. Olean minced few words after that loss: He told Wippler and fellow seniors like Matt Olson and Roy Larson that they had to do more than just show up: They had to show more leadership.

“You can crawl in the hole and say, ‘What’s he picking on me for?’ or you can take the challenge,” Wippler said. “We like a challenge. His challenge paid for the seniors. It woke us up. We always looked up to the Dan Leslies and the Chris Bullises. Now it’s our turn.”

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