After the first three games of the season, College of Charleston baseball coach Monte Lee knew he had a club that could play with any team in the country.
These days, the surprising Cougars are proving that to a national audience.
College of Charleston became the fourth No. 4 seed since 1999 to reach the best-of-three Super Regionals in the NCAA tournament, the equivalent of a 13-through-16 seed making basketball’s Sweet 16 in March.
The Cougars (44-17) toppled nationally seeded Florida to start the Gainesville Regional last week before clinching with two victories against Long Beach State.
They'll try and keep the run going at Texas Tech, starting Saturday. Win two of those and the College of Charleston is off to Omaha for the sport’s ultimate prize, the College World Series.
“It’s a bit of a shocker,” Cougars outfielder Brandon Murray said. “But we’re extra confident, right now, going into this weekend.”
Lee’s belief in his club grew after opening weekend when a team that went 31-26 and missed the postseason in 2013 took two of three from North Carolina, which played in the CWS last June.
Lee brought untested freshman Bailey Ober out of the bullpen in the opener and he responded with five shutout innings for a 7-4 win against the Tar Heels. Two days later, sophomore lefty Eric Bauer worked six strong innings as the Cougars won again, 3-1.
The sixth-year coach saw a loose, gritty group who would not back down against teams stocked with top MLB prospects or packed home crowds.
“I told the team, ‘Guys, you know what? You’ve got a chance to be pretty good this year,’ ” Lee said. “This is a team that competes, and a team that has a chance to do some special things.”
That’s already happened this season. The Cougars won a marathon, 23-inning contest with William & Mary 3-2 on May 17, tied for the second longest game in college baseball history.
College of Charleston followed that up by winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, getting past top seed William & Mary twice to earn the league’s automatic bid.
Lee and his players thought they’d accomplished enough to earn a higher seed, but were sent to Florida, where most figured the Cougars would quickly be sent packing.
“We had a chip on our shoulder from that,” said Tyler Thornton, a freshman who’s been the team’s Sunday starter all season.
The Cougars used their steady formula to prevail. They scored three runs in the first inning, while three pitchers held Florida to nine hits and two runs after that.
It was much the same in the regional final against Long Beach State as the Cougars pulled in front 4-2 in the fourth and Thornton made that stand up in his complete-game clincher.
“We don’t have a lot of high-talent, high draft guys,” Lee said. “We’ve got a bunch of good, quality players who make you beat us. We don’t beat ourselves.”
Lee’s taking steps to make sure they keep that up in the Super Regionals. Lee talked with his mentor, former South Carolina coach Ray Tanner, on Monday night to pick the brain of a former boss who won CWS crowns in 2010 and 2011.
“I said, ‘What you got for me?’ ” Lee said.
Tanner told him to keep his players as loose and pressure-free as they’ve been all season long.
Lee’s had trouble keeping up with the messages of congratulations that have flooded his inbox this week, including ones from former Cougar and current Yankee outfielder Brett Gardner.
“I don’t know if I’ve slept more than 10 hours the last few days,” Lee said. “This is such a great opportunity for our school and program.”
And one the Cougars don’t want to end yet.
The College World Series “creeps into your mind a little bit,” Cougars outfielder Murray said. “We’re not going to take anything for granted, but we feel we’re ready.”