OMAHA, Neb. -- When Gary Gilmore took over as Coastal Carolina's head coach in 1996, the Chanticleers were coming off a 17-37 season, had made exactly one NCAA playoff appearance and played their home games in a rundown Minor League ballpark. Two decades later, they're one of the best mid-major
OMAHA, Neb. -- When Gary Gilmore took over as Coastal Carolina's head coach in 1996, the Chanticleers were coming off a 17-37 season, had made exactly one NCAA playoff appearance and played their home games in a rundown Minor League ballpark. Two decades later, they're one of the best mid-major programs in college baseball, an annual postseason participant that plays in a two-year-old jewel known as Spring Brooks Stadium.
After years of Gilmore wondering if his team ever would break through and reach the College World Series, including super-regional losses in 2008 and 2010, his Chanticleers did more than just make it to Omaha this June. They won the school's first national championship in any sport by beating Arizona, 4-3, Thursday afternoon.
"We're not the most talented team in America," Gilmore said. "But we're the national champions, and that's all that matters. … This group of guys here, they willed themselves to be national champions. They truly did."
Coastal Carolina had to fight back a number of times in the tournament, starting with overcoming a two-run deficit in the ninth inning of the Raleigh Regional championship game against North Carolina State. They swept two super-regional games on the road at Louisiana State, then fought their way out of the loser's bracket in Omaha before shrugging off a final series-opening loss to the Wildcats. All told, the Chanticleers went 6-0 in elimination games in the NCAA playoffs.
"The hard work the alumni have put in to get us to have these great facilities and this coaching staff is just unbelievable," said junior right-hander Andrew Beckwith, who won three games in Omaha to push his Division-I leading total to 15 and was named the CWS Most Outstanding Player three weeks after getting passed over in the Draft. "And the senior class pushed everyone from the start when they got back in the fall, and our one goal was to get to Omaha and win it all. And we got to Omaha and we won it all. We won a national championship."
That CWS didn't come easily. Beckwith, who had two complete-game victories earlier in the CWS, matched zeroes for five innings with junior right-hander Bobby Dalbec, whom the Red Sox drafted in the fourth round as a power-hitting third baseman. At TD Ameritrade Park, where runs are difficult to come by, Coastal blew the game open with four in the top of the sixth.
Dalbec looked like he would strand two runners when senior third baseman Zach Remillard (10th round, White Sox) hit a two-out grounder up the middle to senior second baseman Cody Ramer (19th round, Angels). Ramer dropped the ball and then threw wildly to third, a double-error that scored the first two runs of the game. Junior DH G.K. Young (31st round, Padres) followed by hammering a hanging 0-2 breaking ball over the right-field bullpen for his 18th homer of the year and a 4-0 advantage.
Arizona immediately rallied with two unearned runs of its own in the bottom of the sixth, chasing Beckwith after sophomore first baseman Kevin Woodall's error opened the door for sophomore center fielder Jared Oliva's two-out, two-run single. With a pitching staff running on fumes, Coastal turned to sophomore righty Bobby Holmes to get out of the sixth before handing the ball to junior right-hander Alex Cunningham (28th round, Tigers) to finish the game.
Cunningham, who won the bracket championship game against Texas Christian on Saturday, earned the first save of his college career in dramatic fashion. He used a double play to get out of the seventh inning and worked a perfect eight before running into trouble in the ninth.
With one out, junior shortstop Louis Boyd drew a four-pitch walk and Ramer singled to put the tying runs on base. Senior right fielder Zach Gibbons (17th round, Angels) hit a sacrifice fly to slice the lead to one and bring up the best power hitter in the Wildcats lineup, senior first baseman Ryan Aguilar (31st round, Brewers). Aguilar delivered a double into the left-field corner that seemed certain to tie the game, but senior left fielder Anthony Marks reached the ball and got it to the cutoff man so quickly that Ramer had no chance to score.
Arizona head coach Jay Johnson, who was coaching third base and held Ramer, said he would have nightmares about Marks' play for the rest of his life.
"It's the play of the season in college baseball," said Johnson, who was bidding to become the first coach ever to win the CWS championship in his first year at his school. "I can't believe it. We play aggressively and I mean it's live by the sword and die by the sword, and with two outs we're sending guys.
"And the shortstop had the ball when Cody, who is a great runner, was at third base. He would have been out by 100 feet and it's only 90 feet, I know. I can't believe the play was made."
Gilmore said the play was a fitting end to the college career of Marks, a former walk-on who went undrafted three weeks ago. He led the Chanticleers by hitting .387 in seven games in Omaha, starting numerous rallies from atop their lineup.
"I thought Anthony Marks' play in this entire tournament was one of the difference-makers for our team," Gilmore said. "At least offensively for me, he was our MVP from Game One all the way through. He played unbelievable … That young man doesn't deserve to stop playing. That kid's passion and ability, that kid can play professional baseball."
Marks' stunning defensive play didn't finish the game, however. Cunningham still had to get one more out with the tying run on third base and the winning run on second. He threw two balls to sophomore catcher Ryan Haug, battled back to a full count and then struck him out on a 91-mph fastball.
"None of you probably know this, but in high school I lost the state championship game three times in a row," Cunningham said. "I was not going to lose this one, I promise you that … I didn't have my best stuff, I wasn't throwing a lot of strikes, but I just competed as best I know how."
Coastal Carolina (55-18) led NCAA Division I in victories while becoming the first team to win the CWS in its first trip to Omaha since 1956 when Minnesota achieved the feat. The Chanticleers hit 96 homers this season, the most since the NCAA introduced the toned-down BBCOR bats in 2011, and became the first club to top D-I in that category and win the national title since Louisiana State in 1997. Their championship also is the first ever for the Big South Conference -- though they'll officially join the Sun Belt Conference on Friday.
Arizona (49-24) had been 6-0 in NCAA elimination games before the loss. The Wildcats have won four national titles, in 1976, 1980, 1986 and 2012.
Arizona 3, Coastal Carolina 0
Coastal Carolina 5, Arizona 4
Coastal Carolina 4, Arizona 3
*Jim Callis is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow @jimcallisMLB on Twitter and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.*