Friday, June 8, 2018

Appreciation Article: 2016 Coastal Carolina Baseball

Coastal Carolina University is a small university located in Conway, South Carolina, with an enrollment of a little under 11,000 students. The nickname for their athletic teams are the "Chanticleers", which is basically another term for a rooster.

In the 2016 NCAA Division I Baseball Tournament, Coastal shocked the country as they brought home the first national championship in school history. This is the story of their journey.

Getting to the Postseason
Coastal Carolina entered the 2016 regular season ranked No. 23 in the preseason polls. Having gone 39-21 (17-7 Big South) the previous year with a season-ending loss in the College Station Regional, Coastal was hoping to get on track by winning their first Big South Championship since 2012.

The Chanticleers did just that as they went 21-3 in conference play to claim their 15th and final Big South regular season championship. Despite an impressive 40-15 regular season record, Coastal would need to win the Big South Tournament to have a viable shot at making the NCAA Tournament.

Even as the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, Coastal did not get a bye. That meant they would have to win four straight games to earn their automatic bid to the tourney. Fortunately, the first three rounds were double elimination, so the Chanticleers had some room for error. In the opening round, Coastal defeated No. 8 seeded Radford 7-5 to advance to the quarterfinals.

Their next opponent would be No. 4 seeded Gardner-Webb, who Coastal narrowly defeated 4-3 to advance to the semifinals. They would down No. 3 seeded Longwood 5-1 to advance to their 15th Big South title game. There, the Chanticleers would win a pitcher's duel over No. 7 seeded Liberty by a slim margin of 1-0. With both the Big South regular season and tournament titles, Coastal was all but guaranteed a spot in the tournament.

Now up to No. 15 in the polls, Coastal would be sent to the Raleigh Regional as a No. 2 seed in the region. They would open up the tournament with a 5-3 win over No. 3 seeded Saint Mary's and then shutout No. 1 seeded North Carolina State 4-0 to advance to the regional final.

The Wolfpack responded in the rematch and pounded the Chanticleers 8-1 to set up a winner-take-all finale. In their first elimination game of the NCAA postseason, Coastal upset North Carolina State 7-5 to advance to just the third super regional in school history.

Super Regionals
Coastal would have a tough task ahead of them as they would head out to Baton Rouge to take on the No. 8 national seeded LSU Tigers at Alex Box Stadium. The Tigers had dropped a game in regional play, but had to feel like they were gifted a free ticket to Omaha with Coastal (who was 0-4 all-time in super regionals) coming out of the Raleigh Regional.  With the "Rally Possum" phenomena in full swing, LSU's overconfidence put them right where Coastal wanted.

In a stunner to everyone except their fans, Coastal won the first game by a score of 11-8. Now one win away from Omaha, the Chanticleers needed to overcome the chaos of the Box just one more time.

In Game 2, LSU rallied to tie the game at 3-3 in the top of the ninth inning, but failed to take the lead after loading the bases with only one out. In the bottom of the frame, senior left fielder Anthony Marks worked a walk on a full count to lead off the inning. He then proceeded to steal second base on the very next pitch to get into scoring position.

Up 1-0 in the count now, junior shortstop Michael Paez settled back in the box for the biggest at-bat of his collegiate career. On the next pitch he saw, Paez chopped a ball over the third baseman's head and down the left field line. As soon as the ball cleared the third baseman's mitt, Marks came dashing around third and beat the throw to the plate as he slid into home to score the game-winning run! It was over! The Chanticleers had just upset No. 8 LSU and were going to the College World Series for the first time ever!

College World Series
In their first College World Series game, the Chanticleers did not get a break as they matched up against another SEC school in the No. 1 overall seeded Florida Gators. Riding the momentum from super regionals, the Chanticleers kept the Gator bats silent and won the opening round 2-1 to advance to the winner's bracket.

TCU & Texas Tech
Coastal came back down to Earth when they took on TCU. Mirroring the Chanticleers' largest loss of the postseason back in regionals, the Horned Frogs smacked Coastal 8-1 to send them to the loser's bracket.

Coastal would now need three wins if they wanted to continue this dream season and reach the Finals. Facing another team from Texas, the Chanticleers took down their third national seed of the tournament as they eliminated No. 5 Texas Tech 7-5.

In the rematch against TCU, not once in either game did Coastal trail as they would win both games by scores of 4-1 and 7-5. Somehow, this little school from the Big South had survived the loser's bracket and would be playing for a national championship!

The last obstacle in Cinderella's way were the four-time champion Arizona Wildcats. Having won the title back in 2012 and rallying off three straights wins from the loser's bracket themselves, Zona came into the CWS Finals with just as much confidence as Coastal.

This showed as the Wildcats blanked the Chanticleers in Game 1 by a score of 3-0. Yet again, Coastal had their backs against the wall. In Game 2, Arizona took a quick 1-0 lead in the first inning before Coastal responded with two runs in the third inning. Zona would get one back in the fifth inning to knot things up and it remained that way until the eighth.

In the top of the eighth inning, Coastal put up a three-spot to take a 5-2 lead and would stave off a Wildcat comeback attempt to win the game 5-4. It would now be a winner-take-all game for the national championship.

In Game 3, it remained scoreless until Coastal exploded for four runs with two outs in the top of the sixth. Arizona would not lay down though, as they put up two in the bottom of the frame to make it 4-2.

Coastal junior Alex Cunningham would enter for relief in the seventh, and used a double play to work past his two walks to keep Zona off the board. After tossing a perfect eighth, Cunningham and his teammate's would get their money's worth in the ninth.

A fly out would start the inning, but the next Arizona batter would reach on a four-pitch walk. A single would then put runners on the corners before a sacrifice fly cut the lead to 4-3. Though their lead was trimmed, Coastal was now one out away from the title.

On a 1-1 pitch, Cunningham gave up a double that landed in the left field corner. Luckily for Coastal, the baseball gods were on their side as the ball ricocheted against the wall and went directly to left fielder Anthony Marks.

The senior would quickly pick up the ball and fire it into the infield to hold Arizona's runner at third. It was now runners on second and third with two outs, a one-run lead, and the national championship on the line.

Facing Arizona's cleanup hitter, Alex Cunningham found himself in a 3-2 count with first base open. On the 48th pitch of his outing, Cunningham reared back and notched a strikeout swinging to win the first national championship in Coastal Carolina history!

Coastal Carolina celebrating as they cap off their title run.

Campus Legends
Here is the complete 2016 roster for Coastal Carolina that made this national championship possible:

Also, here is the experienced coaching staff who helped guide Coastal to such an incredible postseason run:

As of the conclusion of the 2018 season, all of the Coastal Carolina coaching staff remains intact.

Lasting Legacy
What Coastal Carolina accomplished in the 2016 postseason and how they did it is something that will never be forgotten in the annuls of college baseball. Here are some interesting notes from the Chanticleer's national championship run:

  • In their final year in the Big South Conference, Coastal Carolina finally gave the conference its first national champion in any sport.
  • The Chanticleers had to defeat three national seeds once they got out of regional play.
  • Playing with their season on the line was no big deal to Coastal as they won six elimination games in the tournament. Five of them came in the College World Series.
  • This was Coastal Carolina's first national championship in ANY sport.
  • Coastal finished with an 11-3 record in the 2016 postseason.

The Aftermath
Since winning it all two years ago, Coastal Carolina missed the 2017 postseason entirely and was just eliminated in their own regional last weekend in the 2018 tournament. Nevertheless, the future is bright for Coastal and their baseball program will continue to thrive as long as head coach Gary Gilmore sticks around.

Final Takeaway
Regardless of who you root for, to see a school like Coastal Carolina win a national championship was very special and historical. I, as a Gator fan, could not help but pull for the Chanticleers even after they upset Florida in the opening round.

Coastal embraced their underdog role and constantly overcame adversity every single time it struck their team. They showed resiliency and relied on one another when their backs were against the wall. Though perhaps not the most talented squad in America, teams like Coastal Carolina are the reason why games are played on the field and not on paper.

For coach Gary Gilmore, this national championship brought him to tears. Given his two decades with the program and more importantly the loss of his father just two years prior, Coach Gilmore had every reason to shed some tears as he celebrated the biggest win in Coastal's history.



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