All these years later, Brad Hill and his players still laugh about it. But somebody had to say something. Had to put their foot down.

Early in the 2003 season, the University of Central Missouri baseball team delivered a lethargic performance. Unacceptable, Hill recalled, especially in a premier program. And so he gathered the team in the outfield and let them have it.

“I thought I was being a really nice guy,” Hill recalled, laughing.

Well, the Mules had the last laugh, capturing the NCAA Division II national championship. That group – and the way it bonded together — certainly is worthy of the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, which is proud to induct the 2003 UCM Mules Baseball Team with the Class of 2020.

The Mules finished 51-7, winning 41 of their final 44 games, after Hill tried to restore order. UCM also became the first in D-II history to enjoy four consecutive 50-win seasons, and the 51 wins at the time tied with two others (1994 UCM, 1995 Florida Southern) for second-most among D-II champions.

Even better, they accomplished it with 21 players from the Show-Me State, plus a recruiting mindset of finding potential D-I talent.

Think they wanted it badly? At one point, they arrived to a visitor’s ballpark on a rainy day, only to see it not ready. So the Mules raked the field and played ball.

The Mules ranked fourth in the nation in batting, fifth in scoring, sixth in fielding and seventh in team earned run average. Central Missouri went 25-1 in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, swept the MIAA Tournament, went 3-0 in the regional and advanced to a fourth consecutive College World Series. There, they beat Grand Valley State (3-2), Franklin Pierce (11-4), Kennesaw State (6-5 in 13) and Tampa (11-4).

To a man, the Mules remember Hill’s verbal tongue-lashing as much as winning it all.

“The kids responded,” Hill said. “And that’s a credit to them. They took off.”

A year earlier, the Mules reached the College World Series championship round, only to lose twice in extra-innings to Kennesaw State. Plus, Hill didn’t want to squander the pitching talent.

“In 1998, we had the best offensive team in the country,” Hill said. “We go to the World Series and ended up realizing it takes more than scoring runs. We didn’t have the depth on the mound.”

Of those who saw playing time:

  • Danny Powers transferred from Crowder College. Nick Denning was a homegrown lefty. Phil Sobkow came in from Fresno City College.
  • Powers finished 10-0 with a 2.49 earned run average and earned two wins in the CWS, including in the championship game. Denning was 9-1, and Sobkow was 8-0 with 82 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. Pitchers included B.J. Kissel, Bob Bergin, Nick Webber, Eric Horner, Brad Doering, Clint Longwell, Craig Zumwinkel and Chris Kilgore.
  • The lineup featured center fielder Danny Guidry, second baseman Boomer Berry, third baseman Zach Norman, first baseman Joe Strada, Stephen Downey in right field, Steve Murphy in left, designated hitter Tommy Bryant, catcher Brandon Pugh and shortstop Andy Mayfield. Norman and Strader were All-Americans.
  • Strada (.415, 11 home runs, 22 doubles, 84 RBI) was a Wichita State transfer, Guidry a juco transfer and Mayfield joined from Missouri State. The team also included David Highfill, Matt Whitney and Brian Shewmaker.

In the World Series opener, Powers scattered five hits over eight innings in a 3-2 win, with Downey scoring on Bryant’s sacrifice fly after singling and stealing second and third. In the next game, Sobkow struck out nine, and Norman was 4-for-5.

In the semifinal against Kennesaw State, Norman’s 13th-inning single scored Guidry for the game-winner. Norman also made a game-saving play in extra innings, fielding a sacrifice bunt attempt and throwing out the potential go-ahead run at second base. A double play ball followed.

“His instincts took over,” Hill said.

Steve McReynolds, who hadn’t pitched in three weeks, tossed three scoreless innings of relief.

In the championship, UCM broke a 5-5 tie with a two-run sixth. Powers threw seven innings, overcoming a shaky start.

After the season, Sobkow was a 10th-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Murphy, who transferred to Kansas State, reached Triple-A in the Texas Rangers system. Powers was an eighth-round draft pick of the Minnesota Twins in 2005.

Assistants were Clint Culbertson, Tom Myers, Jamie Saunder and Scott Thomason.

“It was a very mature team,” Hill said, “and they did a great job of taking care of business.”