As Coastal Carolina baseball coach Gary Gilmore raised his arms in the air triumphantly and connected with the Chanticleer fans celebrating above the team’s dugout Saturday night after the latest biggest win in program history, he recognized former pitcher Steve Ells in the crowd and pointed him out.
“I love you! You started it 21 years ago!” he shouted, his words thick with emotion.
As this incredible postseason push that has been more than two decades in the making for Coastal Carolina now reaches college baseball’s final stage, it seems only natural to look back once more as a way of appreciating what is now ahead.
And on Sunday, the morning after a 7-5 win over TCU put the Chants in the finals of the College World Series, as Gilmore was back at the ballpark with the national championship trophy sitting between he and Arizona coach Jay Johnson and the start of their best-of-three series looming Monday evening, he was asked to do just that.
Specifically, Gilmore was asked by an Associated Press reporter if he could describe what the baseball program at his alma mater was like when all of this began in 1996.
Gilmore smirked and shook his head while leaning back in his chair.
“I don’t know if we have enough time to go back that far,” he said.
Gilmore went on to talk about the neglected old facilities and about the culture of the program at that time, and as he reflected back on setting the foundation for what was to come, he thought of Ells and that first group of players.
“[There are] things that I laugh about with my coaches and my wife and things that I’ve actually laughed about since I’ve been out here, because several of those players have actually shown up here. It was just kind of a different mindset,” he said. “Just to kind of give you an idea, heck, when we had our first weekend practice and had our first team meeting, I said, ‘I’ll see you guys at 9 o’clock on Saturday morning,’ and I had two kids sitting there at the end of the meeting and they come up to me and say, ‘Coach, I can’t be at practice.’
“I’m [like], ‘What do you mean you can’t be at practice?’ He says, ‘Well, I’m a bartender down here at the beach and by the time I get off I won’t be able to make it to practice at 9 o’clock.’ So I was like, ‘Well, you’re going to have to make a choice, young man. We’re going to play baseball here.’ One of those young men was in the stands last night and he ended up being one of our best pitchers that year. It was just a mindset difference, but to go through the things that we’ve gone through to get here is incredible.”
Incredible, improbable and at this point unforgettable.
The Chants (53-17), who have the most wins in the country now and are the first team since Georgia Tech in 1994 to reach the finals in their College World Series debut, are just two wins away from a national championship as they prepare for their showdown with Arizona (48-22).
As the coaches would enumerate Sunday, the teams share a lot of similarities – in terms of their approach, their style to a degree, that they both had to win their way through the postseason in tough road environments before each working back through the losers bracket here in Omaha to reach this point.
And, of course, that neither was ever projected to be in this spot.
Coastal Carolina was simply trying to break through and just get to the College World Series for the first time, hoping a team laden with experienced seniors and juniors could be the one to go where no other group in program history had. And Arizona, meanwhile, had missed the NCAA postseason the last three years before taking off in year one under Johnson.
For the Chants, the season turned after being swept in a three-game series at Georgia Tech, April 29-May 1. They’ve won 22 of 25 games since then while working their way through the NCAA regionals at NC State and the super regionals at LSU and going 4-1 so far this week against the best competition in the country.
“In all reality I didn’t expect to be here about two or three months ago,” Gilmore admitted. “So as this has unfolded, I’ve just felt like if God was going to give me this opportunity to get here I’m just going to ride it out and trust that this is what I’m supposed to do and it’s worked out so far.”
For the Wildcats, the pivotal moment came after dropping the first two games in a series at Oregon in late May. Johnson challenged his team during the series finale, reminding them that they were better than they were showing. That sparked a run through the regionals at Louisiana-Lafayette and the super regionals at Mississippi State before they battled back from a loss here in Omaha to fend off elimination against UC Santa Barbara once and Oklahoma State twice to reach this championship series.
“I don’t think there was ever a time we said, ‘Hey, this team’s going to Omaha,’ ” Johnson said, looking back on the season. “I know like [Coastal Carolina], we had to beat a bunch of good teams. It’s really impressive what they did to get to the championship series, beating a bunch of big-name programs. We had to do the same thing, and I feel like our players’ ability to embrace only what’s right in front of them is why we’re here.”
For all those similarities, though, there is one significant difference between these programs.
Arizona has been in the College World Series 17 times now while winning four national championships – the last in 2012 – while for so many years it was merely a dream and a vision for Coastal Carolina to just one day get here to Omaha.
I’ve laid awake many a night wondering if I’d ever in my life have this opportunity – to just get here, much less to get to this stage right here.
“I’ve laid awake many a night wondering if I’d ever in my life have this opportunity – to just get here, much less to get to this stage right here,” Gilmore said.
A win in this best-of-three series for Arizona would punctuate the start of a new chapter in the history of a power program. For Coastal Carolina to pull this off, though, for the Chants to win a national championship this week, would be a story with few parallels in the recent history of college baseball.
Only three teams from outside the traditional power conferences – Rice (2003), Cal State Fullerton (2004) and Fresno State (2008) – have won the College World Series in the last 20 years, and no program of any kind has pulled off the feat in its first appearance since Minnesota in 1956.
That’s something the Chants say they are trying not to think about at this point. They’ve been well served by a one-pitch-at-a-time approach all season and are trying as best they can to keep it that way as all eyes in the sport now turn their way.
“It’s one of those things I don’t think we’ve thought about yet,” senior right fielder Connor Owings said of potentially winning a national title. “But every time we get to go out and compete and play for that community and that university, it’s just a pleasure to do that because [it’s] such a great town and those people just care about that university and us as people so much – not just as players, but as people. So to be able to just go out and compete for them on a national stage just really gives us pleasure to do that for them because they believe in us and they’ve supported us the whole way here. To maybe achieve something like that for them would be very special.”
Added senior third baseman Zach Remillard: “It’s all about the community and the Coastal family. We’ve had a lot of support since we’ve been here and to bring a championship home would be awesome. But we’re going to focus on the process and pitch by pitch. We’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. Yeah, it’s an exciting opportunity, but we’re getting ready for pitch one right now.”
On that note, neither coach was ready to announce a starting pitcher for Monday night after each team exhausted its arms while weathering three potential elimination games in recent days.
There was still plenty to sort out for both teams now that they had each well surpassed any logical expectation for their seasons.
Through it all, though, Gilmore said he wants himself and his team to enjoy this, to savor the experience because it only takes a glance in the right direction into the crowd to be quickly reminded of how incredible this moment truly is for the Chants.
“It’s just – it’s kind of like I’m in a dream. I’m scared to pinch myself, to be very honest with you,” Gilmore had said after the win Saturday night. “I mean, coming from where I started 21 years ago and where our university was at [at] that point in time and where we’re at today, to know that we’re on this stage is one of the most incredible things I could have ever imagined.
“I don’t know if I ever dreamt this far, to be honest with you. [I] dreamt getting to Omaha. I don’t know that I ever dreamt getting to this point.”
NCAA College World Series Finals
Best-of-three championship series
Who: Coastal Carolina vs. Arizona
Where: TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Neb.
Game 1: 7 p.m. ET Monday, on ESPN
Game 2: 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, on ESPN
Game 3: 8 p.m. ET Wednesday (if necessary), on ESPN
▪ All games can be heard locally on WSEA-FM 100.3