Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore had exhausted everything in his vast arsenal acquired over 30 successful years as a college head coach attempting to turn his team’s fortunes around late in the season.
Following its crushing 9-8 loss Wednesday to Texas-Arlington in its opening game of the Sun Belt Conference Baseball Championship, when it gave up seven runs in the eighth and ninth innings combined and lost in the 10th, he was out of possible solutions.
A talented team with one of the top offenses in the country, the Chants had fallen to 12-20 over their last 32 games and were one loss from the end of their season.
“We’ve tried everything. There’s nothing else to try, I’m telling you,” Gilmore said Wednesday. “It’s very, very sad and frustrating to be very honest with you.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t something that could be forced with tinkering or adjustments. It was something that had to be found from within. And somehow his players found it, and it carried them to a Sun Belt tournament title Sunday at Springs Brooks Stadium.
Coastal came from the loser’s bracket to win five games in four days, repeatedly overcoming large deficits and setting several Sun Belt tournament offensive records along the way, to claim the title with a 9-7 win over Georgia Southern in the championship game.
“I guess [we found] just the love that we have for one another inside the locker room,” said senior outfielder Kieton Rivers, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “We’re all pretty close, we’re all best friends and have good team chemistry. When we lost our first game in the tournament it kind of hit us woke us up a little bit, made us realize our next game could be our last game. From that point on I think we found that something in our hearts, in our bodies, to keep pushing, keep going.”
The fifth-seeded Chants (35-24-1) hadn’t won five games in a row since March 15-23, when they opened Sun Belt play 5-0. They now await their seeding and destination in their 16th NCAA regional in the past 19 years.
In their five wins, Coastal overcame deficits of six runs once and five runs twice.
Coastal trailed by five runs in Saturday’s 26-10 win over Louisiana-Monroe, and trailed by five and survived a game-tying grand slam with two outs in the ninth inning in Friday’s 14-13 win over Texas-Arlington. Even in the game they lost to UT Arlington, the Chants trailed 6-3 before scoring five runs in the top of the ninth inning.
The six-run comeback came Sunday.
“These last five days, I’ve never been prouder of a group of people that could have so easily after the way we had played for two months to have just said, ‘Ok, enough, let’s move on in life, let’s do this and let’s not worry about it,’ ” Gilmore said. “To see the resiliency in them, and see the confidence grow every single day, every single inning, everything we went through from that point on after that loss was unbelievable.
“. . . I think they would tell you right now they think they can beat anybody at this moment in time.”
Coastal trailed 6-0 after two innings and was facing one of the Sun Belt’s top pitchers in Seth Shuman, who entered the game sixth in the conference with a 3.59 earned-run average with 109 strikeouts and 25 walks in 87 2/3 innings.
A pair of home runs by Rivers, including a three-run shot that tied the game in the sixth inning, and a solo shot by Scott McKeon were keys in the comeback and gave the Chants a Sun Belt tournament record 18 homers for the week.
The second-seeded Eagles (35-24) scored an unearned run in the first following an error by third baseman Mike Koenig – who was replaced by freshman Nick Lucky after the inning – and two-out RBI single by Jason Swan.
They added five in the second on a pair of two-run home runs to left field by Noah Ledford and Nolan Tressler, who replaced Mason McWhorter after McWhorter was hit in the hand and face by a pitch in the first inning, and a run on a wild pitch.
Coastal scored three in the top of the fourth on a Kyle Skeels single, Parker Chavers walk, McKeon RBI double, Jared Johnson sacrifice fly and RBI single by Cory Wood, who was caught in a rundown after the hit with Lucky on third base to end the inning.
The Eagles went up 7-3 on a two-out RBI single by Swan in the bottom of the fourth, though Tyler Martin got caught in a rundown rounding third base to end the inning.
A homer by Rivers leading off the fifth inning chased Shuman after 88 pitches. He allowed four runs on five hits and two walks with five strikeouts and left with a 7-4 lead while pitching on three days’ rest. Shuman was sixth in the Sun Belt with a 3.59 ERA and had struck out 109 while walking 25 in 87 2/3 innings.
“You knew they were going to make a run,” said Georgia Southern coach Rodney Hennon, whose team has lost three of the past four Sun Belt championship games. “I mean they are so explosive offensively, especially here in their ballpark. Seth gave us everything he had. All the guys did. We needed to keep tacking on runs and unfortunately we didn’t do that.”
The Chants completed the comeback with four runs in the sixth to take an 8-7 lead.
Pinch hitter Cameron Pearcey walked on a nine-pitch at-bat, Wood was hit by a pitch and Rivers pulled a line drive over the left field fence for a three-run homer to tie the game. A Skeels two-out double off the center field wall scored Jake Wright, who had walked, to give CCU the lead.
A solo homer by McKeon in the seventh gave Coastal a two-run lead.
Coastal started junior lefty Anthony Veneziano, who threw 99 pitches in seven innings Wednesday, and he lasted just 1 1/3 innings Sunday, allowing three runs – two earned – on two hits with two strikeouts. Veneziano was ill Sunday and received an IV Sunday morning.
Sophomore righty Zach McCambley pitched 2 1/3 and allowed four runs on four hits and two walks with five strikeouts.
Georgia Southern was shut out after the fourth inning, as Alaska Abney allowed a hit and walk in 1 1/3 innings and junior lefty Scott Kobos threw the final four innings, allowing three hits and a walk with four strikeouts while throwing 68 pitches. Kobos had thrown 45 pitches in 3 1/3 innings as a starter Thursday.
“I knew I was going to be in the mix somehow, I just wanted to be able to get out there and do what I can do best, with no quit and no letup, just do it for my guys behind me,” Kobos said. “When I was coming off the field in the eighth [coach Drew Thomas] asked me, ‘Are you good?’ I told him that I’m the only one who is going to finish this game.”
Coastal scored at least eight runs in all six of its tournament games and set several Sun Belt tournament records.
In the Sun Belt tournament Coastal: set a tournament record with 80 runs scored, surpassing the previous record by 19 runs; set a tournament mark for hits by one with 90; set a tournament record with 18 home runs, besting the previous mark by three; set a single-game record with 26 runs in a game, surpassing the previous record by four runs; tied a record with five home runs in a game, and did it in consecutive games; combined with ULM to score the most runs in a game with 36, passing the previous record of 34.
Sun Belt tournament records date back to 1978.
“We had our backs against the wall, and now we just have all the momentum, all the confidence,” Rivers said. “We’ve got to remain humble because baseball is a humbling sport, but at the same time we’re feeling good about ourselves. We just know we’re here playing for each other.”
The NCAA regional selection show on ESPNU is at noon and Coastal will have a watch party at Handley’s Pub & Grub in Carolina Forest that is open to its fans.
“Who knows? It’s such a crazy game. All of it is about playing the best when it matters,” Gilmore said. “This team . . . if within a week we can get completely healthy and ready to go again, they feel it. If we can get favorable matchups and be in some place with a hitter-friendly park where our offense can really do some things, we have a chance. That’s all we can ask.”
Coastal has been assigned to the Atlanta Regional hosted by Georgia Tech and will play Auburn in its opening game. Tickets are available through the regional tournament page or by calling the Georgia Tech ticket office at 1-888-832-4849. All-session chairback seats are $72 and all-session reserved bench seats are $60. Single session tickets will go on sale Thursday, if available.