Dick Cooke was supposed to go to a wedding on Saturday.
Cooke, Davidson’s longtime baseball coach, and his staff had planned on celebrating the nuptials of David Daniels, a former Wildcats first baseman who graduated in 2015, this weekend in Charlotte.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you see it, Cooke and assistants Rucker Taylor and Ryan Munger were late scratches.
“It’s a pleasantly unusual circumstance,” Cooke said Thursday night.
On Friday night, Cooke’s Wildcats will make their NCAA Tournament debut up the road in Chapel Hill against No. 2 national seed North Carolina. They’ll play in front of a packed house dominated by Tar Heel blue. But there will be plenty of Wildcats there as well, as teammates and friends coming back to Charlotte for the wedding began making plans to see Davidson history almost as soon as the Wildcats clinched the Atlantic-10 title by beating top-seeded VCU twice on Saturday.
Daniels likely doesn’t mind too much. He clearly remembers the night he went 3 for 4 with three runs and four RBI when Davidson won at North Carolina in 2015. And he’s assured wedding guests that the Wildcats’ game will be on at the reception should they top the Tar Heels again.
After all, this is big for one of Division I’s little guys, a program that offers three scholarships – far short of the 11.7 allowed per NCAA rules – housed within a high-academic college with an enrollment of 1,950.
“I don’t think they’re going to approach it as this is gravy and they’re just happy to be here,” Cooke said of his team. “This isn’t just wow, it’s great that you guys are there…We want to put on a good show…
“The cliché that we’re playing with house money probably applies, but they’ll be disappointed if the outcome isn’t respectable.”
And it’s special for Cooke, one of the good guys in the game, a guy who’s led Davidson for 27 years and been involved with Team USA since 1999.
Cooke knows it took a few breaks to reach this point. A year after becoming the first 6-seed to play for the A-10 title (a loss to VCU), the Wildcats returned as a 6-seed and beat VCU twice in the title round. Durin O’Linger, a fifth-year senior headed to pharmacy school at the University of Florida, gutted out 236 pitches over four days, and junior Alec Acosta, owner of one career home run, blasted five homers in St. Louis.
“Some things fell into place,” said Cooke, who played and assisted at Richmond and was hired at Davidson by Terry Holland. “As a fan, I was saying: ‘Holy cow, how are we doing this?’”
In his case, it also took a lot of luck to take his team to the NCAA Tournament.
Three days before practice was to start in the September 2012, Cooke was driving home from visiting a recruit when an impaired driver rammed his minivan off I-77 near his home. His car slammed into a tree, and Cooke was rushed to the hospital with a punctured lung, bleeding on his brain, broken ribs and a shattered leg. The term save took on a much more important meaning.
Cooke had hired Taylor, a former second baseman at Vanderbilt who had spent six seasons as an assistant at Samford, earlier that summer. As Cooke recovered, Taylor had no choice but to take over.
“My style has always been to delegate, let the coaches coach,” Cooke said. “The wreck enhanced that even more. Practice was going to start that Friday, the wreck happened that Tuesday. For Rucker, it was his show.
“I was able to watch him take the delegation I was going to give him and take it to another level. I watched him develop an incredible amount of trust from the players.”
Cooke returned to the dugout and used a crutch for most of the 2013 season. But even after the crutch was gone, Cooke didn’t stop leaning on his assistants.
Former Duke catcher Ryan Munger joined the staff in time for the 2014 season. Cooke said he changed a lot of things, including giving even more responsibility to Taylor and Munger, who these days with volunteer assistant Aaron Lynch, develop practice plans, implement the offense and defense and assist Cooke with the pitchers.
“They direct me way more than I direct them,” Cooke said. “It’s understated how valuable they are. Their baseball IQ is off the charts.”
It all contributes to a team that already has made history.
And is looking to make a little more.