Lander baseball coach Kermit Smith looks back at what his team has accomplished thus far this season with more than a little amazement. As the Bearcats prepare to begin play in the NCAA Division II College World Series in Cary, N.C., this weekend, their numbers are staggering.
They enter Saturday’s 5 p.m. game against Chico (Calif.) State with a 51-7 record after having won 20 of their past 21 games, including four in the NCAA Southeast regional that they hosted in Greenwood.
Lander never lost consecutive games, won 24 of 30 games to win the regular-season championship in the Peach Belt Conference – one of the nation’s toughest – and then won three more to claim the conference tournament, while leading the league in runs, homers and ERA.
“I probably wouldn’t have believed it before the season, even though I did feel like we had a good club,” Smith said of his team’s 51-7 record. “We’ve got 10 seniors that we’ve got a week-and-a-half to coach, and we’re going to make the most of it.”
First baseman Connor Lewis, an A.C. Flora High product who is hitting .356 with a team-high 20 home runs and 73 RBIs, is one of those seniors. After transferring from Elon, the 6-foot-3, 230-pound left-handed hitter has made a big impact in two seasons. He leads an offense that averages 9.4 runs per game.
“If somebody is not doing well, everybody else picks them up. It’s just something I’ve never been a part of,” Lewis said. “It seems almost like a dream. Everything’s going our way.”
That senior class includes right fielder Patrick Grady (.400, 9 HR 49 RBIs), shortstop Erik Lunde (.373, 14 HR, 50 RBIs), second baseman Graham Ramos (.346, 7 HR, 66 RBIs), ace right-hander Dylan Wolchik (12-1, 3.31 ERA), and left-hander Ryan Jones (10-0, 3.26 ERA).
The pitching staff also has received key contributions from a pair of former Chapin High right-handers, freshman closer Brandon White (4-2, 1.06 ERA, 11 saves) and sophomore starter Taylor Alvarez (9-2, 4.09 ERA), a transfer from the College of Charleston.
Smith came to Lander after leading Belmont Abbey College (N.C.) to the 2009 Division II CWS. He brought strong recruiting connections in North Carolina and Florida that have supplemented his efforts in the Palmetto State.
Smith was convinced his staff could build a powerhouse program in Greenwood with the support of the university’s administration, which committed to a new athletics complex that included Dolny Stadium, which opened before the 2013 season.
Lander recorded the final out of the regional championship game on that field at 1:34 a.m. Monday – which came after a long weather delay before Sunday’s first game – to clinch the program’s first trip to the College World Series. The Bearcats will join Tampa, Seton Hill (Pa.), Minnesota State-Mankato, Colorado-Mesa, Southern Indiana, St. Thomas Aquinas (N.Y.) and Chico State.
When Lewis was considering where to go after leaving Elon, he liked Smith’s pitch, which included Lander’s goal of winning a national championship.
“That sounded pretty good to me. It’s been great. I’ve been really happy with my decision,” Lewis said. “The coaches have prepared us. We knew that we could do this.”