The way the Coastal Carolina baseball team closed out the regular season reminds senior pitcher Alex Cunningham of last season, and that can’t be a bad thing.
The Chanticleers won the 2016 College World Series, and Cunningham has a feeling of déjà vu.
The Chants enter the Sun Belt Conference Baseball Championship having won 12 of their past 14 games and 11 consecutive games against Sun Belt opponents.
“It honestly feels a lot like it did last year, how everyone is coming together and we’re getting hot at the end of the year,” Cunningham said. “You just need to get into the tournament and whatever happens, happens. The hottest team is going to win.”
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Rain and soggy field conditions have resulted in two days of canceled games at the Sun Belt tournament at Georgia Southern’s J.I. Clements Stadium, and a change to the format from double elimination to single elimination.
Play is expected to begin Thursday with play-in games beginning at 3 p.m., setting up an eight-team single-elimination tournament that is expected to begin with quarterfinal games Friday, followed by semifinals on Saturday and the championship at 1 p.m. Sunday.
The top-seeded Chants (37-18-1) are scheduled to play at 4 p.m. Friday against the worst seed remaining from Thursday’s elimination games between No. 10 Georgia State and No. 7 Arkansas State, and No. 9 Little Rock and No. 8 Texas State.
No. 2 seed Texas-Arlington will face the better remaining seed, and the other quarterfinal matchups are No. 3 South Alabama vs. No. 6 Troy and No. 4 Louisiana vs. No. 5 Georgia Southern.
A committee will announce the 64 teams in regionals – 31 automatic qualifiers and 33 at-large selections – on Monday.
As Cunningham said, the Chants just need to get into the NCAA tournament, and their worthiness is apparently still up for debate despite having the Sun Belt’s best regular season record at 22-7-1 with their 11-game conference winning streak.
Not all publications and websites that cover college baseball project the Chants to make an NCAA regional following the conference tournament.
D1baseball.com projects Louisiana-Lafayette will win the Sun Belt tournament and garner a lone conference regional berth.
CollegeSportsMadness.com has Coastal Carolina securely in as a No. 3 seed in a regional hosted by Clemson, and also has Sun Belt foe South Alabama in a regional as one of its “Last Eight In.”
Baseball America projects the Chants to be the Sun Belt automatic qualifier and be a No. 3 seed in a regional hosted by North Carolina, and also has UL-Lafayette as a No. 3 seed as one of its “Last Four In.” South Alabama is among its “Last Four Out.”
“I don’t know what the committee has in store for us,” CCU head coach Gary Gilmore said. “We won the regular season, and I have to believe that has to carry a lot of weight at this point in time in our league, where you’ve got six teams in the top 100 [in the RPI]. It has to carry some weight and our record against most of them is pretty good. I feel fairly good about that part.
“We’re going to have to go [to Statesboro] and get something done. Do we have to win the whole tournament? I don’t know. … There’s one true way for us to get in, that’s to win a conference tournament and that’s going to be our goal.”
We’re going to have to go there and get something done. Do we have to win the whole tournament? I don’t know. … There’s one true way for us to get in, that’s to win a conference tournament and that’s going to be our goal.
CCU head coach Gary Gilmore
CCU has participated in an NCAA regional in nine of the past 10 and 14 of the past 16 seasons, missing only in 2014 and 2006 since 2001.
CCU won seven of the past 10 Big South Conference regular season and tournament championships before joining the Sun Belt this season. Despite that success that garnered numerous automatic regional berths, the Chants still received at-large berths into regionals in 2005, 2013 and 2015.
CCU has reached three super regionals, falling at North Carolina in 2008, dropping two one-run games to eventual national champion South Carolina at Pelicans Ballpark in Myrtle Beach in 2010, and getting past LSU on the road last year.
CCU’s late season push has been led by its top three starting pitchers Cunningham, Andrew Beckwith, who went 8-0 in conference starts, and Zack Hopeck.
“Those three starting guys have been outstanding,” Gilmore said. “If we get somewhat comparable starts the rest of the year we’ll be competitive in every single game we play.”
As of Wednesday, Gilmore had not committed to starting Cunningham, who posted a 7-2 record and 2.68 earned-run average as the No. 1 starter all season, in the opening game, though that was prior to the format being altered, leaving the Chants with a maximum of three games.
Cunningham threw 120 pitches while strikeout out 14 and allowing just two hits in 8 1/3 innings last Thursday against Appalachian State.
“Alex got extended a lot the other day. We may do whatever we have to do Game 1,” Gilmore said. “We’ll be playing someone who will not be throwing their No. 1 guy as well. In this league that doesn’t guarantee you’re going to win. We’ll have to see matchup-wise where we’re at and physically where each of our guys is.”
Leadoff hitter Billy Cooke, the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, and Kevin Woodall Jr., who led the Sun Belt in two key offensive power categories with 18 home runs and 60 RBI, have been consistent all season.
The Chants also had several players end the season on hot streaks at the plate.
Jordan Gore of Conway has a hit in 24 of his last 26 games, Wood Myers has a 13-game hitting streak, and Cory Wood led the conference with a .406 batting average in league games and was named the Sun Belt Freshman of the Year.
Largely because of an injury to junior outfielder Dalton Ewing that will likely force him to miss the rest of the season, sophomore Kieton Rivers has started 23 consecutive games in the outfield and has reached base in 19 of his past 22 games while batting .358 in that span.
“Because of the injuries and things we’ve incurred, Kieton has been probably the biggest find for us,” Gilmore said. “… When [Dalton Ewing] got hurt we desperately needed a guy, and Kieton had never really gotten an extended opportunity to play here. I’m so happy for him because he’s turned into a really good player, I mean a very good player.”
The Chants may have to continue their Sun Belt Conference success to have a chance to recapture the magic of last season.
“It has been a lot of fun this year,” Woodall said. “It’s always fun around here, especially when we’re winning. Being around these guys is great. We’re getting to that point in the year when we’re on the road a lot, and that’s when you really find out a lot about your teammates and you come close together and you start building that bond.”
All Sun Belt Tournament games will be broadcast online by ESPN3.
Sun Belt altered schedule
Game 1 - 3 p.m. - No. 10 Georgia State vs. No. 7 Arkansas State
Game 2 - 6:30 p.m. - No. 9 Little Rock vs. No. 8 Texas State
Game 3 - 9 a.m. - No. 6 Troy vs. No. 3 South Alabama
Game 4 - 12:30 p.m. - Round 1 Winner (highest seed) vs. No. 2 Texas-Arlington
Game 5 - 4 p.m. - Round 1 Winner (lowest seed) vs. No. 1 Coastal Carolina
Game 6 - 7:30 p.m. - No. 5 Georgia Southern vs. No. 4 Louisiana-Lafayette
Game 7 - 3 p.m. - Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner
Game 8 - 6:30 p.m. - Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner
Championship - 1 p.m. - Game 7 Winner vs. Game 8 Winner