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Area players lead World Series run

Tim Rafferty checks his swing.

Teammates congratulate Jake Hilgendorf after a home run blast.
Tim Rafferty and Jake Hilgendorf are pioneers.

Jake Hilgendorf
They may never be mentioned in the same conversations of Jackie Robinson, Albert Einstein or even Lewis and Clark, yet both were members of the first Southwest Missouri State University team to play in the College World Series in Omaha, Neb.

Tim Rafferty
"It was a tremendous experience," SMSU head coach Keith Guttin told the Call. "Once you go and get the feel for things, I think you can see that we can be extremely competitive in the future."

The Bears (40-26) entered the CWS with 13-8 and 13-7 wins over host Ohio State to win the Super Regional. Before the CWS began, the Bears were ranked 16th according to Baseball America. SMSU was eliminated from the CWS with a 4-2 loss to Rice and a 7-5 setback to the University of Miami.

"We had a very good feeling going into the Miami game," Guttin said. "We just didn't get it done. This team just kept coming and coming and never quit."

Rafferty, who's redshirt freshman at SMSU, was an all-state selection at Oakville Senior High. After sitting out the 2002 campaign due to an injury, Rafferty started in 33 games for the Bears in which he batted .286 and drove in 19 runs on 34 hits. The freshman infielder recalled his dreams as a youngster and talked about the chance of playing against the nation's best players in Omaha.

"It was just unbelievable," Rafferty told the Call. "When you're a kid, you dream about something like this. When we got to the hotel, they really pulled out the red carpet. Everyone was there including ESPN."

Hilgendorf was the SMSU "Rookie of the Year" last season and saw limited action in an outfield that was jammed packed with talent. The sophomore outfielder who starred at Lindbergh Senior High, appeared in 28 games this season while starting three as he carried a .429 batting average.

"The College World Series is something that you always dreamed about but never imagined that you would get there," Hilgendorf told the Call. "Words can't describe the feeling there. We definitely had the crowd on our side being the underdog."

Despite his lack of playing time this season, Hilgendorf came through in a huge way at the CWS as he slammed a home run against Rice starting pitcher Jeff Niemann, who's regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in the nation. Hilgendorf also hammered out a single in the seventh inning against Miami in short lived rally to a 5-2 deficit.

"To his credit, Jake kept working and working all season," Guttin said. "When Jake gets into the game, something positive happens. Based on what he's showed us this year, he's going to have a great opportunity next season."

Rafferty saw a good portion of his playing time at the first base position, which the Bears had struggled to get much offense from at the beginning of the season. According to Guttin, the redshirt freshman provided a consistent bat to a lineup that generated 420 runs this season.

"We were not getting much production out of the first base position in the beginning of the season so we ended up putting him (Rafferty) over there," Guttin said. "He's a good contact hitter who's pretty consistent in his approach."

The Bears had seven players taken in the recent Major League Baseball draft, and will return approximately 17 players for next season.

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