This was always the goal, for two-plus decades now since Gary Gilmore took over the baseball program at his alma mater and began building it into a national contender. And then rebuilding it back again.
This was one of the reasons he turned down an opportunity to coach in the SEC at Auburn eight years ago, to have a chance to experience this dream with this school – his school.
And that dream came true Sunday night.
After a resolve-testing, gut-wrenching and nearly disastrous top of the ninth inning in which Coastal Carolina squandered a one-run lead and nearly more, the Chanticleers finished off a dramatic 4-3 walk-off win over host Louisiana State to complete a two-game sweep of the teams’ NCAA super regional series at Alex Box Stadium and clinch the program’s first-ever College World Series berth.
As the players streamed out of the dugout after Michael Paez’s chopper over the third baseman brought home Anthony Marks for the winning run in the bottom of the ninth, Gilmore jumped into the arms of his assistant coaches as they met him by the third base line.
“I tell you what, players and moments and 21 years at Coastal Carolina have flashed in front of my brain,” he said a few minutes later down on the field. “As Marks is rounding third base and I knew they didn’t really have a good shot at him, I mean, it’s incredible. I must have had about 100,000 thoughts go right through my head in that moment of time. It was unbelievable.”
It really was one heck of a way to end the wait.
Just three outs from punching their ticket to Omaha, the Chants (49-16) nearly let this one slip away entirely in the top of the ninth as LSU (45-21) tied the game and threatened to seize control after trailing the whole way.
I think there’s no doubt that these two wins here would have to be the two biggest wins in the history of our program.
CCU baseball coach Gary Gilmore
The inning had started ominously for the Chants when freshman second baseman Cameron Pearcey, making his first start since March 22 as an injury replacement for starter Seth Lancaster, fielded a ground ball and threw wide to first pulling Kevin Woodall Jr. off the bag as Cole Freeman reached safely.
Freeman then took second on a wild pitch from reliever Bobby Holmes, Antoine Duplantis walked and Jake Fraley laid down a bunt to move the runners over. Third baseman Zach Remillard had to charge in and make a quick throw with Pearcey covering first, and after the rookie caught the ball Fraley plowed through him jarring it free as the tying run came in to score.
Holmes got Kramer Robertson to then ground out for the first out and intentionally walked Greg Deichmann to load the bases before delivering the biggest pitch of his career – a 3-2 strikeout of pinch-hitter Brody Wofford – and getting Beau Jordan to fly out to left to strand the bags full.
“To be honest with you I don’t really remember, I kind of black out in moments like that,” Holmes said later of his thoughts during that tense spot.
The ending, though, nobody associated with Coastal Carolina will ever forget.
I think I just punched as much air as I could punch. I think I was throwing haymakers left and right and I don’t even know what I did, I don’t remember. I just knew when I saw him slide into home that we had actually won the game and it was over.
Marks drew the leadoff walk from reliever Hunter Newman on a 3-2 pitch, stole second and then scored as Paez hit a chopper over third baseman Chris Reid, who was playing in seemingly expecting the Chants to bunt.
The truth is if Gilmore hadn’t taken Connor Owings out for a defensive substitution in the top of the ninth, he would have bunted in that spot with Owings on deck, but it worked out just fine this way.
“I looked at Mike and I told him, I mean we say it every time we come up, ‘Nobody better than me and you,’” Marks said. “I told him, ‘We’re going to take us to Omaha.’ You joke around and you say that and you don’t really think about it, but here we are. And I was just trying to grind through that at-bat, and when he threw ball four I knew it was up. ...
“He gave me that high leg kick and I wasn’t hesitating to [steal second] so we don’t have to surrender an out, we can have three outs to play with instead of two and it only took us one more pitch.”
Said Paez: “I knew we had a guy behind us that didn’t have many at-bats, and I wanted to be that guy to send us to Omaha. ... Guys we’re picking each other up all day. Our second baseman made a mistake and we knew we were going to get behind him, and being a shortstop I wanted to show him that we pick each other up and no matter what happens, we’re going to have each other’s back.”
With the home crowd of 11,606 stunned for the second time in two days, the Coastal Carolina players and coaches poured onto the field to celebrate what can only be described as the most significant athletics achievement in school history.
The images of Gilmore wrapped in a hug with assistant coach Matt Schilling down the third base line, his legs off the ground and a look of full exaltation on his face, will no doubt earn a prominent place on the walls somewhere back at Springs Brooks Stadium one day.
There is simply no way to understate what Sunday night meant to this program and its longtime leader.
“I think I just punched as much air as I could punch. I think I was throwing haymakers left and right and I don’t even know what I did, I don’t remember,” Gilmore said. “I just knew when I saw him slide into home that we had actually won the game and it was over.
“All the years with some of these guys, my staff, we’ve been together a bunch of us about 10 years. The other 10 years was a grind, a grind with other guys that helped build this program too. I still remember the look in people’s eye[s] when I got hired and I told them one day we would go to Omaha. I think they thought I was hallucinating or something. So to all those who didn’t believe me back then ...
“We’ve been banging on that door and thank God this was the group to do it. This was one of the most fun groups I’ve ever coached.”
There’s no telling how many times over Gilmore’s 21 years at Coastal Carolina he has dropped “Omaha” into an interview response or comments to his team. It has been the singular rallying cry for this program for so long, to make sure nobody ever lost sight of the goal.
He had gotten the Chants on the doorstep twice before with super regional appearances in 2008 and 2010 – that latter one a crushing ending as Coastal Carolina lost a pair of one-run games to South Carolina.
With each passing year, though, even Gilmore admitted he wondered at times if the Chants would get another chance.
Two years ago they bottomed out due to injury and rebuilding and endured their first losing record since his second year with the program in 1997, but the foundation was being set nonetheless with a group of guys who are now the veteran leaders of this Coastal Carolina team.
This collection of seniors and juniors that produced six Major League draft picks this week, 18 wins in their last 20 games and now the most memorable season in the history of a proud program.
And honestly I don’t think anyone up here in that locker room doubted we could do this. Not one person doubted we could do this. I don’t think anyone thought we were going to come in here and win the first two, but everyone in our locker room thought we could do it and never doubted.
CCU left fielder Anthony Marks
“We talk about it all the time, when he’s not around, how bad we want to get coach to Omaha, how bad we want to get him to Omaha, how bad we want to get him to Omaha ... And now look at us,” Marks said. “... And honestly I don’t think anyone up here or in that locker room doubted we could do this. Not one person doubted we could do this. I don’t think anyone thought we were going to come in here and win the first two, but everyone in our locker room thought we could do it and never doubted.”
Seemingly still riding the momentum of their 11-8 win the night before in the opener of the best-of-three series, the Chants wasted no time taking the lead Sunday night.
Marks led off the bottom of the first with an infield single, keenly tagged and advanced to second on a flyout to centerfield, raced to third on a wild pitch and scored when Remillard struck out on a pitch way outside that got away from the catcher.
G.K. Young followed with a two-out RBI single to make it 2-0 after one inning.
It wasn’t going to be that easy, though. They knew that much.
Junior right-hander Alex Cunningham went 7 1/3 innings while allowing only two runs, but he worked out of plenty of jams along the way while yielding 10 hits and a walk.
After LSU scored its first run in the top of the third, Cunningham stranded runners on second and third to minimize the damage. He stranded runners on second in the fourth and fifth as well before the tension really started mounting.
Reid and Michael Papierski hit back-to-back one-out singles for LSU in the top of the seventh to lay the groundwork for a potential rally with the Chants up 3-1 at that point. After Cunningham got Freeman to pop out to short for the second out, Duplantis fired up the home crowd with an opposite-field RBI double down the third base line to make it 3-2.
Cunningham bounced back to get Fraley to ground out to Woodall at first base to escape the inning with the lead in tact, but he would eventually exit the game with one out in the top of the eighth and runners on first and second.
Holmes (6-2), who earned the win in both super regional games, came in from the bullpen and struck out Beau Jordan for the second out before walking Reid to load the bases.
The crowd inside the ballpark was at its loudest as it stood and tried to will its Tigers on, but Holmes got Papierski to hit a grounder up the middle toward Pearcey, who fielded it cleanly and flipped to Paez covering the bag for the final out.
And then the ninth, of course.
“I just feel like it was destiny for us,” Gilmore said. “We got out of that Raleigh regional when pretty much everybody had put us to bed. We found a way with two outs to get a big hit and get ourselves to here, and we wiggled out of about every jam you can wiggle out of in the two days we were here. We’re very, very fortunate. Our kids are so resilient. ...
“I think there’s no doubt that these two wins here would have to be the two biggest wins in the history of our program.”