It's hard to stay Under the Radar when your team goes on the road and wins a series at Louisiana State. So from that standpoint, Appalachian State (based in Boone, N.C.) is hardly Under the Radar anymore.
Until last weekend, though, the program was. Coach Chris Pollard believes his team's series win at Alex Box Stadium was more than just a good weekend. He hopes it's a sign that the program he's been building since arriving in Boone from Division II Pfeiffer (N.C.) has left its underwhelming past behind.
"It's a good validation of the progress we're making," Pollard said Monday morning, "but we've got to protect against just looking at one weekend. We don't want to look back at the end of the year and see that we went to LSU and won a series but didn't accomplish our other goals. So we need to enjoy it but get back to work soon and move on."
App State hasn't reached a regional since 1986 but has made significant progress under Pollard, whose first two teams had losing records but whose last five have won at least 32 games each season. The recent success and the series win at LSU owe mostly to pitching, and Pollard's pitching background (he pitched at Davidson in the mid-1990s) makes it the program's foundation. The Mountaineers have ranked fifth, third, second and fourth in the Southern Conference in ERA the last four seasons, with team ERAs declining from 6.14 to 4.42 in that span.
In the preseason, Pollard told BA, "(This) should be deepest pitching staff we have had in my eight years at Appalachian. We return three weekend starting pitchers and two of (the) three top arms out of bullpen. We should also be very strong defensively."
The depth in the rotation allowed Pollard to move the team's top prospect, righthander Nathan Hyatt, from a starting role to the closer spot, which Pollard says fits Hyatt's mindset better. Senior righties Ryan Arrowood and Seth Grant provide experience and 90 mph fastballs to anchor the rotation, and the addition of junior lefthander Rob Marcello from Indian River (Fla.) JC (where he played with Padres first-rounder Cory Spangenberg) cemented the rotation.
All three pitched well against LSU. Grant, who threw six shutout innings in an Opening Day loss to George Mason, lost Friday to Tigers ace Kevin Gausman, who pitched seven scoreless and sat at 95 mph with his fastball, according to Pollard. But Arrowood out-dueled touted Tigers lefty Ryan Eades on Saturday, winning 1-0 with relief help from Hyatt. Then Marcello got plenty of early offensive support as the Mountaineers took a 5-0 lead through four innings. Marcello cruised home, retiring 21 out of 23 after stranding runners at second and third in the bottom of the first.
"Arrowood threw really well; he loves to compete and threw four pitches with a lot of confidence," Pollard said. "The big difference for us all weekend was our pitchers' ability to establish the changeup and get their hitters off-balance. Marcello did it as well."
DH Danny Kousseff did his part to lead the offense, hitting his second homer of the season to provide the margin in Saturday's 1-0 victory and adding three hits Sunday. The team's best-known player, junior center fielder Taylor Zupcic, is the son of ex-big leaguer Bob Zupcic and contributed a team-best three RBIs on Sunday with a double and a triple.
LSU's fans lived up to their classy reputation and gave Marcello a standing ovation when he was lifted in the ninth with one out. App State experienced another special moment when the team flew home, arriving in Charlotte and then busing to Boone to find around 100 supporters and a police escort back to Beaver Field at Jim and Bettie Smith Stadium.
The whole experience draws parallels to Appalachian State's noted football program, which won three straight Football Championship Series titles from 2005-2007. In 2007, the Mountaineers made national news by beating Michigan at the Big House in Ann Arbor.
"A lot of our fans and my friends are making that comparison," Pollard said. "There are similarities, in that Alex Box is one of the most revered venues in our sport, and there was a great atmosphere there, even though the weather was more Boone than Baton Rouge . . . I thought the coolest moment of the whole weekend was their fans' reaction when we took Marcello out in the ninth . . . they really appreciate good baseball.
"Then our fans meeting us at the ballpark when we came home, that was a neat deal. I really hope what we can really do going forward is capture that feeling and hope we ignite a spark for people to come out and see us at home. We have a good core of folks who are loyal and brave the Boone weather, and now I hope we can capitalize on this first weekend."
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