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The University of Michigan is one baseball win away from bringing home a championship trophy not seen so far north in more than a half-century.
The Wolverines beat the Vanderbilt University Commodores, 7-4, to begin their best-of-3 title bout Monday night in Omaha, Nebraska, with the College World Series championship on the line.
Tommy Henry, a junior from Portage, Michigan, threw 8 1/3 solid innings to get the win and put his Wolverines within one victory, either Tuesday or Wednesday, of a geographic upset of the ages.
After Ohio State won the NCAA's Division I title in 1966, the sport of college baseball has been thoroughly dominated by teams from the South and the West Coast.
Only two remotely northern teams, Wichita State University in 1989 and the University of Oklahoma in 1994, have punched through and they're still far south of Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Michigan coaches and players said they're not just competing for their school or the Big Ten conference — but for an entire swath of America that can't play much baseball until April.
"It's just been so much fun being able to wear a Midwest team across my chest and to play for such a great program," Wolverines catcher Joe Donovan told reporters Sunday.
"I know so many of the other guys just want to see it get back to that point and bring the Big Ten back to where it's just a great baseball conference, and it's just been so much fun."
Weather is the overarching challenge for any college baseball program in the north, forcing most teams to play almost at least a month at the beginning of each season on the road.
For example, Vanderbilt played its first home game the night of Feb. 20 and it was a relatively balmy 56 degrees at first pitch in their home park in Nashville, Tennessee. Meanwhile, the high temperature in Ann Arbor that day was 37 degrees.
The Wolverines didn't play their first game at home until March 14. And by the end of March, Michigan had played eight games in Ann Arbor as opposed to the Commodores' 23 home contests by that point.
Michigan coach Erik Bakich said he's grateful the school provides indoor practice facilities most teams in his region don't have. He said the bad playing conditions are a mindset about "not taking no for an answer, not allowing cold weather to be an excuse."
"We have these indoor facilities, but we don't like to use them very often," Bakich, a California native and an East Carolina University graduate, said.
"We go outside. If it's above zero degrees, we are outside. It might only be for 20 or 30 minutes, but it's just a mindset thing. We're going outside. And our players know it, and our recruits know it, and we don't shy away from it. Yeah, it's cold here, but it's not going to keep us from getting better."