In looking ahead to the NCAA Regionals this weekend and the Coastal Carolina baseball team’s return to the postseason bracket, Chanticleers coach Gary Gilmore was also asked to look back.
Because remembering the trials and frustrations the program endured last year is the only way to fully appreciate what’s been accomplished this season as the No. 2-seeded Chants prepare to take on No. 3 California on Friday to open the four-team double-elimination regional at Texas A&M.
So sitting in his office earlier this week, the discussion steered back to that injury-riddled 24-33 finish a year ago, which was percentage-wise the worst in Gilmore’s then-19 seasons at Coastal Carolina and which snapped the program’s streak of seven straight NCAA Regionals berths.
Asked how he decompressed from the strain of that setback, the long-time Chants coach offered a classic “Gilley” response.
“I think I put lighter fluid on my uniforms and burned them because I couldn’t find them [any]where,” he said with that dry humor he uses at times. “I dreamt I did that, but I probably actually must have done it because I could never find them.”
Regardless of what actually happened to those uniforms, one of Gilmore’s first moves in making sure such a season wasn’t repeated was to speak with his returning veterans and more or less issue a challenge.
“He just basically said, ‘This is you guys’ team now. Don’t let it happen again.’ And we took that to heart,” junior outfielder Connor Owings said this week.
The groundwork for this Chanticleer resurgence – which includes a 38-19 record, a resume littered with quality wins over marquee opponents and now this, a chance in the NCAA Regionals to try to launch a postseason push – began not long after the team was bounced from the Big South tournament last May.
The veterans who would be back in 2015 started talking, started establishing the message, the mantra that would define their goals.
First baseman Tyler Chadwick remembers having breakfast with a bunch of the other rising juniors shortly after last season ended. It was at Eggs Up Grill, he thinks, but he’s fully certain about the topic of the discussion.
“We were just like, ‘Listen, we need to get this back going the way it was,’” Chadwick said. “We were, I wouldn’t say embarrassed by last year, but I’d say more frustrated. We felt like we let the program down and we didn’t want to let that happen again.”
Said junior reliever Mike Morrison: “We met with Gilley a couple times and we told him we want to get this program back to what it was when we got here.”
And so it began.
Having their own ballpark again with the opening of Springs Brooks Stadium this season helped, Chadwick said, but there were other factors too.
A couple players have mentioned how much closer the team is this year and how it just didn’t click all the way last season.
And with a couple key additions – including slugging junior catcher Casey Schroeder and standout freshman pitcher Bobby Holmes – the players say they saw early in fall practice that they had the makings for a quick turnaround.
How it has all come to fruition over the last several months, though –despite incurring more injury setbacks in losing the team’s top two starting pitchers (sophomore Alex Cunningham and senior Austin Kerr) late in the season and having a projected starting outfielder (freshman Dalton Ewing) lost for almost the entire spring – is what really encourages Gilmore.
Just a year after wanting to set his uniforms ablaze to forget a season that tested him like no other, the coach is now talking big about what he sees on the horizon.
“I think the whole part of this team that is going to be very interesting to me is next year’s team, what’s left after the draft. Not only on this team, but what’s left out of our recruiting class,” he said. “Next year’s team, depending on which ones all come, could be one of the most talented groups that’s ever played here.
“I do think this team is kind of setting the table for another of those real good runs if it’s in the cards for us to have some guys stay here and better themselves in the draft a year down the road.”
What these Chants can do this weekend in a tough regional stacked with a No. 25-ranked California team and a No. 8 Texas A&M team playing in its home ballpark is yet to be determined.
But in the end, it may be what they’ve already done that is most important.
As of now, those 2014 struggles look like a blip on the radar for a Coastal Carolina program that very quickly got back to business as usual.
“For me personally if I look back at this, this has been a huge success for this program, in my mind, because it’s one of the very best schedules we’ve ever played, by far,” Gilmore said. “Regardless of what happens, I’m unbelievably proud of these kids. And I’ve told them this, it’s one of the most fun groups I’ve had. I’ve had as much personal enjoyment being around them and just coaching them as people. ... They so badly want to win and do great things.
“I just hope we can find a way to get ourselves into a Sunday afternoon game and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Because as far as the players are concerned, the job this season is not done just yet.
“We were talking about why we came here, what we wanted to do and the reason we came here was to win and for opportunities like this,” Owings said. “... It’s right in front of us so we’ll see if we can take a hold of it.”
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318 or on Twitter @RyanYoungTSN.
The Coastal Carolina baseball program is making its 14th overall NCAA Regionals appearance and 13th in the last 15 seasons.
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