(photo by Tim Cowie, DavidsonPhotos.com)
Two weeks ago, Davidson didn’t even know if it was going to earn a spot in the Atlantic-10 tournament.
Sunday night, the Wildcats became the second A-10 team in three years to reach college baseball’s Super Regionals by edging national No. 2-seed North Carolina 2-1.
“It’s all kind of a blur,” Davidson coach Dick Cooke said by phone late Sunday night.
When the Wildcats took two of three at Massachusetts to close the regular season, Cooke asked assistant Rucker Taylor if they were in the A-10 tourney. Taylor told Cooke, “I think so.” But Cooke was told there was a chance four teams could finish with identical 13-11 league records – three would make the field and one would stay home.
“We were sweating through that,” he said.
That Davidson even was in that mix was an accomplishment. Dismissing the fact the program has three scholarships – well short of the 11.7 allowed by the NCAA – the Wildcats dropped the first game of its A-10 finale at UMass. It trailed 5-0 in the ninth before hitting four homers in a seven-run barrage in the second game of its doubleheader.
“I don’t know if it was divine intervention,” Cooke said.
In the third game of the series, the Wildcats and Minutemen were scoreless through nine. Davidson scored five in the 10th inning to win the series and ultimately earn a spot in the conference tourney, where it rebounded from the losers’ bracket to win three elimination games, including two on the final day against top-seeded VCU.
Calling them underdogs at the Chapel Hill Regional, doesn’t seem appropriate. After all, they’re Cats.
But what Davidson accomplished stirs memories of 2012’s Stony Brook and Kent State teams that reached Omaha, although Kent State was a 3-seed. It stirs memories of A-10 brothers VCU, which fell to Miami in the 2015 Super Regionals, and Richmond, Cooke’s alma mater that lost in three games at Nebraska in the 2002 Supers. It stirs memories of Fresno State, a No. 4 seed that went out and won the whole darn thing in Omaha in 2008.
Earlier Sunday, Cooke and his wife Susan were chatting about the position the Wildcats had put themselves in. “If things don’t go well today, North Carolina has to beat us twice,” they discussed.
“We were laughing at the absurdity of that statement,” Cooke said.
Davidson, with an enrollment of 1,950 and three baseball scholarships, was on the verge of winning a Regional in its first NCAA Tournament appearance against one of the blue bloods of college baseball, a North Carolina program that has made 10 College World Series appearances and nearly won a title twice, falling in 2006 and 2007 to Oregon State.
The Wildcats sent Josh Hudson, a 2-3 pitcher with a 5.27 ERA with 35 walks in 42.2 innings, to the mound. Hudson, who tossed 5.2 hitless innings – with eight walks – against UNC earlier this year, worked seven innings Sunday with six hits, one earned run, two walks and six strikeouts.
They got a two-run single from Will Robertson, a player Cooke said originally was seen by former assistant Mike Zandler, who thought he had a good swing and was given the fall of his freshman year to see if he’d pan out. Robertson, who hit .210 with three homers and 11 RBI as a junior, is hitting .336 with 18 homers and 46 RBI in becoming a draft prospect as a senior.
And they again got big innings from their Stretch Armstrong, the rubber-armed Durin O’Linger who closed the final two innings after stifling Carolina on Friday night.
Cooke said he had no thought of calling O’Linger’s number Sunday until Taylor, his top assistant, suggested the right-hander headed to pharmacy school at the University of Florida when this dream ends could start the eighth. Cooke thought: We have a game to play with. Taylor countered with, “Maybe we talk about trying to win it now,” Cooke said.
In the ninth, clinging to a 2-1 lead, O’Linger got the first out before Brandon Riley and Tyler Lynn singled to put the Tar Heels in business. Zack Gahagan followed with a single to right, where Robertson, a project out of Jacksonville’s power program The Bowles School four years ago, fielded and fired to the plate. Jake Sidwell, who is the first drafted player to attend Davidson, fielded the throw a little in front of the plate and dove to tag Riley, who in turn was reaching with his left hand for any part of the irregular pentagon that is home plate. Sidwell originally missed the tag, Riley originally missed the plate. Sidwell then dove as Riley dove back to the plate, the runner ruled out, inches away from turning the tide the Tar Heels’ way.
A bang-bang play at first with O’Linger holding the bag on a flip from senior first baseman Brian Fortier send Davidson into delirium.
“I don’t know how to describe it,” Cooke said. “I walked off the field, the coaches hugged each other.”
Cooke said he remembered years ago when his Wildcats won a Tuesday night game against top-ranked Georgia Tech in 1994, that Yellow Jackets team that featured Jason Varitek and Nomar Garciaparra and lost in the College World Series title game. He joined the dogpile that night, and recalled last night that he felt embarrassed and apologized to Tech coach Danny Hall.
Against the Tar Heels, he felt the same kind of calm he felt Saturday night as his Wildcats edged Florida Gulf Coast. Even though history was happening before his eyes, he still felt “befuddled that we put ourselves in this amazing position.”
“This maybe shouldn’t happen,” he said. “There’s nothing logically that this should occur.”
Yet, it did.
And Davidson has yet to awake from its improbable dream.