June 18, 2016 - June 30, 2016 • TD Ameritrade Park, Omaha, Nebraska • Attendance: 341,667
MATT DIXON/THE WORLD-HERALD
The baseball skipped off the dirt an inch inside the foul line, seemingly destined to settle in the left-field corner long enough for Arizona’s best base runner to sprint home and tie the national championship game in the ninth inning.
Cody Ramer, on first base with two outs, was scoring. No doubt, Jay Johnson thought.
Coaching third base, Johnson started waving his right arm, signaling Ramer to head for the plate, before the umpire had pointed to indicate the ball landed fair.
But out of nowhere, Coastal Carolina’s senior leader came charging.
This former walk-on, a hard worker no major league teams wanted to draft, essentially epitomized his under-regarded, grit-filled program with one extraordinary moment of hustle and poise. Left fielder Anthony Marks ran to the right spot, handled the carom off the wall with ease and fired a strike to the relay man.
Ramer had to stop at third.
The game ended on a strikeout one batter later — and the Chanticleers celebrated their first championship in any sport with a 4-3 win in the College World Series title game Thursday.
Because of Marks. He made the defensive play of the year, Johnson said afterward.
“I can’t believe the play was made,” Johnson said. “We won two games at home earlier this year on the same ball. You’ve got tip your hat to Anthony.”
But to Marks, his fielding of Ryan Aguilar’s double was routine. Something he’d practiced over and over. A natural, training-based response.
It was how he and his teammates carried themselves throughout the entire postseason — despite onlookers curiously or skeptically monitoring each of their feats, presuming it would end soon.
Like when they made a ninth-inning comeback in the regional final at North Carolina State. And during two super regional wins at LSU. And against No. 1 overall seed Florida and its five MLB drafted pitchers in the CWS opener. And in two back-against-the-wall battles with TCU, the team that had been to Omaha three straight years.
“This is the only way it’s going to be. If we’re going to (win) it, it’s got to be this way,” Marks aid. “Everything that’s gone on ... it’s been a hump in the road — adversity — and we take the challenge head on.”
Coach Gary Gilmore called it destiny.
He and the Chanticleers were making their 14th NCAA tournament appearance in the last 16 years. He’d seen those campaigns conclude in all sorts of ways — but never in Omaha.
But he watched his players relax after four veterans got selected on the MLB draft’s final day. He saw the team gain confidence after it knocked off the Gators. And then Thursday, he joyfully watched everyone dogpile on the TD Ameritrade Park infield.
“This group of guys here, they willed themselves to be national champions. They truly did,” Gilmore said. “It was just meant to be. There’s no doubt. If there’s such a thing as a team of destiny or whatever, this group is it.”
No Coastal Carolina program, in any sport, had even played for a national title until Thursday. A team from the Big South had not won an NCAA championship (CCU coincidentally moves to the Sun Belt on Friday).
The Chanticleers became the first team to win the championship in its Omaha debut since Minnesota in 1956. They won five elimination games in the NCAA tournament — four of which came in the CWS, the most since Oregon State in 2006. They’re the first non-power conference team to win the title since Fresno State in 2008, and the fifth in 25 years.
Said Gilmore: “I think a lot of people — all my brothers in arms at the mid-majors — they’ve been wearing my telephone out the whole week. ‘Wear the banner for us. Show us it can be done.’”
But the Chanticleers didn’t view themselves as such. Maybe in 1996, when Gilmore took over and found an unusable batting cage and a fractured culture. He told the story Sunday of guys who claimed they couldn’t attend morning practice because of their late shifts as beachside bartenders.
But CCU’s been underrated for a while.
“The program’s been a lot better than people gave it credit for,” Gilmore said in an interview with ESPN that played on the stadium big screen. “They just thought we played in a small conference and couldn’t get this going. This bunch right here wanted to prove everyone wrong.”
It wasn’t easy.
They had to wait an extra day after Game 3 of the finals, originally scheduled for Wednesday, got rescheduled for Thursday afternoon following a 2-hour, 23-minute delay.
Then they got the thing underway and the Chanticleers (55-18) didn’t look comfortable. Their ace, Andrew Beckwith, surrendered four hits in the first three innings. The CCU lineup managed one base runner — he was wiped away on a double play — during the first four innings.
But then came the decisive outburst in the sixth.
A two-out ground ball rolled toward Ramer, but the normally sure-handed second baseman couldn’t field the ball and then threw wildly toward third base. Two runs scored on the play. The next batter, G.K. Young, smashed an 0-2 off-speed pitch into the right-field bleachers for an emphatic two-run homer.
Arizona (49-24) got two runs back in its half of the sixth. The Wildcats then scored once in the ninth on a sacrifice fly. And they did bring the crowd — announced at 18,823 — to its feet when the potential winning run came to the plate.
Aguilar’s double nearly tied it. But Marks was there, giving junior Alex Cunningham the opportunity to clinch the title with a strikeout.
“That was a hell of a play,” Gilmore said of Marks’ effort. “I mean, for me, that was the play of the game. There’s no doubt. ... That was an intense moment that any margin of error he has at all — that runner scores and it’s a tie game. And probably we wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
David Parrett, C, Coastal Carolina
Ryan Aguilar, 1B, Arizona
Cody Ramer, 2B, Arizona
Ryan Merrill, SS, TCU
Zach Remillard, 3B, Coastal Carolina
Anthony Marks, OF, Coastal Carolina
Zach Gibbons, OF, Arizona
Jared Oliva, OF, Arizona
Luken Baker, DH, TCU
Andrew Beckwith, P, Coastal Carolina
JC Cloney, P, Arizona