As Coastal Carolina coach Gary Gilmore raised his arms in the air triumphantly and connected with the Chanticleer fans celebrating above the team’s dugout Saturday night after the latest biggest win in program history, he recognized former pitcher Steve Ells in the crowd and pointed him out.
“I love you! You started it 21 years ago!” he shouted, his words thick with emotion.
As this incredible postseason push that has been more than two decades in the making for Coastal Carolina now reaches college baseball’s final stage, it seems only natural to look back once more as a way of appreciating what is now ahead.
And on Sunday, the morning after a 7-5 win over TCU put the Chants in the finals of the College World Series, as Gilmore was back at the ballpark with the national championship trophy sitting between he and Arizona coach Jay Johnson and the start of their best-of-three series looming Monday evening, he was asked to do just that.
Specifically, Gilmore was asked by an Associated Press reporter if he could describe what the program at his alma mater was like when all of this began in 1996.
Gilmore smirked and shook his head while leaning back in his chair.
“I don’t know if we have enough time to go back that far,” he said.
Incredible, improbable and at this point unforgettable.
The Chants (53-17), who have the most wins in the country and are the first team since Georgia Tech in 1994 to reach the finals in their College World Series debut, are just two wins away from a national championship as they prepare for their showdown with Arizona (48-22).
As the coaches would enumerate Sunday, the teams share a lot of similarities – in terms of their approach, their style to a degree, that they both had to win their way through the postseason in tough road environments before each working back through the losers bracket here in Omaha to reach this point.
And, of course, that neither was ever projected to be in this spot.
Coastal Carolina was simply trying to break through and just get to the College World Series for the first time, hoping a team laden with experienced seniors and juniors could be the one to go where no other group in program history had. And Arizona, meanwhile, had missed the NCAA postseason the last three years before taking off in year one under Johnson.
For the Chants, the season turned after being swept in a three-game series at Georgia Tech, April 29-May 1. They’ve won 22 of 25 games since then while working their way through the NCAA regionals at NC State and the super regionals at LSU and going 4-1 so far this week against the best competition in the country.
“In all reality, I didn’t expect to be here about two or three months ago,” Gilmore admitted. “So as this has unfolded, I’ve just felt like if God was going to give me this opportunity to get here I’m just going to ride it out and trust that this is what I’m supposed to do and it’s worked out so far.”
For all the similarities, though, there is one significant difference between these programs.
Arizona has been in the College World Series 17 times now while winning four national championships – the last in 2012 – while for so many years it was merely a dream and a vision for Coastal Carolina to just one day get here to Omaha.
“I’ve laid awake many a night wondering if I’d ever in my life have this opportunity – to just get here, much less to get to this stage right here,” Gilmore said.
Only three teams from outside the traditional power conferences – Rice (2003), Cal State Fullerton (2004) and Fresno State (2008) – have won the College World Series in the last 20 years, and no program of any kind has pulled off the feat in its first appearance since Minnesota in 1956.
“It’s just – it’s kind of like I’m in a dream. I’m scared to pinch myself, to be very honest with you,” Gilmore had said after the win Saturday night.
“I don’t know if I ever dreamt this far, to be honest with you. (I) dreamt getting to Omaha. I don’t know that I ever dreamt getting to this point.”
Best-of-3; x-if necessary
Arizona (48-22) vs. Coastal Carolina (53-17), 7 p.m. ESPN
Arizona vs. Coastal Carolina, 8 p.m.
Arizona vs. Coastal Carolina, 8 p.m.