With no regional host site closer than Florida this year, the Coastal Carolina baseball team gathered together Monday to watch the live NCAA tournament selection show with a good deal of mystery and suspense.
Although the Chanticleers came up just short of winning the Big South tournament last week and clinching the conference’s automatic berth into the regionals, they were confident nonetheless that their overall resume had earned the program a spot on the 64-team bracket.
They just didn’t know where.
Watching the live ESPNU selection show broadcast inside Handley’s Pub & Grub in Carolina Forest with fans, supporters and other university figures, the Chants’ suspense ended when they flashed on the television screen as a No. 2 seed in the four-team double-elimination College Station, Texas, regional.
Coastal Carolina (38-19) opens play Friday at 1 p.m. EST against No. 3-seed California (34-19) while host Texas A&M (45-11) and No. 4 Texas Southern (31-17) round out the regional bracket.
“I’ve never had this feeling before. It’s super exciting,” sophomore shortstop Michael Paez said. “There were some places I heard we might go and we didn’t end up there. It’s a surprise. It’s going to be fun. I can’t wait.”
Coastal Carolina’s spot on the bracket is the reward for a bounce-back season that exceeded many initial expectations following a 24-33 finish last year.
That rough 2014 season, which was undermined from start to finish by a slew of injury setbacks, snapped a streak of seven consecutive NCAA Regionals appearances for the program.
It didn’t take long for the Chants to get back, though, and this now marks the program’s 14th NCAA Regionals berth overall and 13th under coach Gary Gilmore. The program has twice advanced to the NCAA Super Regionals, in 2008 and 2010.
“It’s something this group of kids set out to do from the very beginning. They wanted to put our program back where it had been,” Gilmore said. “We couldn’t control many of the things if any of the things that happened to us physically last year. But we all took it pretty hard. This program is very proud, has had a lot of regional opportunities, super regional opportunities. This group wanted to get us back up on that stage and give us a chance.”
Paez was asked to contrast the feeling Monday from the finish of last season.
“Last season we just got home [from the conference tournament], packed up and went home. It was just a bad feeling, especially [for] the freshmen,” he said. “I never experienced something like this and everybody talked about it, guys in front of me, and experiencing this now, I know what they’re talking about. It’s one of the greatest feelings and I just want to win now.”
The Chants are coming off a strong week after advancing to the Big South championship game Saturday before losing 5-4 to Radford.
While they missed out on securing the conference’s automatic bid, their season resume – including ranking No. 18 in the RPI with wins over South Carolina and ACC foes Clemson, Florida State, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest – earned the Chants their return to the 64-team bracket.
The players and coaches were joined by university president David DeCenzo, Chants football coach Joe Moglia, assistant men’s basketball coach Stacey Palmore and family, fans and supporters for the live watch party.
Coastal Carolina had been linked to a couple of the Florida-based regionals in various online projections, and the crowd reacted with surprise when those brackets were unveiled without the Chants.
The suspense ended eventually, though, with the players applauding their draw.
“We had a really, really good season and we had a really good resume so we expected to get in,” junior outfielder Connor Owings said. “I was a little surprised about Texas A&M to be honest. It’s a great opportunity and a great challenge for us, so I’m excited.”
The bulk of the program’s NCAA regional appearances over the years have taken place on the east coast with six happening in South Carolina, two in Georgia and one each in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia. The exceptions were 2003 in Lincoln, Neb., and 2005 in Tempe, Ariz.
“I think if you go back and look, I don’t have the factual information in front of me, but I’d be willing [to say] it’s never happened where Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia haven’t had a site to host in all four of those states, [which is] honestly the hotbed of college baseball in our country,” Gilmore said. “... You just knew you were going to travel; you just didn’t know where.”
In opening up against California, the Chants face a Golden Bears program back in the NCAA Regionals for the first time since reaching the 2011 College World Series. That season also marked the only other meeting between the teams with Cal defeating Coastal Carolina, 17-0.
The Golden Bears are ranked No. 25 in the latest Baseball America top-25 poll.
Host Texas A&M is making its ninth straight NCAA Regionals appearance, extending a program record, and is on the bracket for its 31st time overall. The Aggies are ranked No. 8 nationally by Baseball America.
Meanwhile, Texas Southern is in the NCAA Regionals field for the first time since 2008 and the third time in program history. The Tigers earned their spot by winning the SWAC championship.
Texas A&M’s Blue Bell Park, the host ballpark, seats 6,100 fans and has a reputation for producing an intimidating atmosphere for road teams.
The winner of the College Station Regional will then play the winner of the Fort Worth (Texas) Regional, hosted by TCU, in the Super Regionals.
“It’s a great competitive regional,” Gilmore said. “I’ve never been to Texas A&M. [Clemson coach Jack] Leggett and I are very good friends, he said it’s one of the most insane environments he’s ever played in in college baseball, very much like LSU and Mississippi State. So it’s going to be a great opportunity for our kids.”
An opportunity the Chants have been working toward since the end of last season.
“Every workout, every morning run, everything that we’ve put in this season was for this right here, for this start, this new season that we’ve been talking about,” sophomore designated hitter G.K. Young said. “Nothing else in the past matters. It’s a whole new season, it’s a fresh start and we’re just pretty excited to go play baseball.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.
NCAA College Station Regional
Who | No. 2-seed Coastal Carolina vs. No. 3 California
What | Chanticleers and Golden Bears open the four-team double-elimination regional bracket with host Texas A&M and No. 4-seed Texas Southern playing later in the even Friday.
Where | Blue Bell Park, College Station, Texas
When | 1 p.m. EST Friday