Off The Bat: Coastal Carolina Rallies, North Dakota Stuns

Off the Bat wraps up the weekend in college baseball and looks ahead to the upcoming week.

Coastal Carolina Rallies To Beat Virginia In Supercharged Atmosphere

CONWAY, S.C.—No. 23 Coastal Carolina entered the season with a veteran team and big expectations. It didn’t have to wait long to see how it measured up to some of the best teams in the country, as No. 4 Virginia and No. 19 North Carolina State were in the field for its opening weekend Caravelle Resorts Tournament.

Coastal lost a slugfest to North Carolina State on Saturday, falling 13-10. So it came into Sunday’s matchup with Virginia eager to close out the weekend with a victory.

After falling behind the Cavaliers, the Chanticleers rallied for three runs in the seventh and eighth innings and held on for a 5-4 victory in front of a record crowd of 3,136 fans at Springs Brooks Stadium. Coastal and Virginia both finished the weekend with 2-1 records.

Coach Gary Gilmore likened Virginia to the New York Yankees and said his team had to battle throughout the game.

“That team we beat, that’s one of the classiest groups of players, coaches—(they’re) unbelievably well coached,” Gilmore said. “Any time you beat them, I mean you have got to earn it, brother. None of them come easy against those guys. They’re one of the best teams in the country every year.”

After Virginia plated a run in the first and Coastal DH G.K. Young countered with a two-run homer in the bottom half of the inning, the game settled down, a welcome change for the Chanticleers after giving up five home runs the day before. Virginia took a 4-2 lead with three runs in the fifth, including a two-run home run for sophomore Adam Haseley.

Virginia righthander Tommy Doyle kept Coastal in check for six innings (4 H, 2 R, 2 BB 6 K). Once he left the game, however, the Chanticleers went to work against the bullpen. Junior Michael Paez tied the game with a two-out, two-run single in the seventh. The next inning, sophomore Billy Cooke gave the hosts the lead with a two-out RBI single of his own, sending the crowd into a frenzy.

“It’s unbelievable,” Cooke said. “You just hear the crowd roaring and you’re just running around the bases and it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”

Virginia threatened again in the ninth, putting runners on the corners with one out for three-hole hitter Matt Thaiss. But righthander Andrew Beckwith got the junior to ground into a game-ending double play. He finished the game with 4 1/3 scoreless innings and picked up the victory.

For a team with aspirations of hosting the first regional in its new park, facing Virginia was a big early-season test. The Chanticleers played with plenty of emotion throughout the game, energized by the opportunity to compete against the defending national champions.

To win the game, especially in such dramatic fashion, gives the Chanticleers plenty of momentum and confidence coming out of opening weekend.

“It was a head rush,” Beckwith said. “Coming into today, we were all hyped, we knew what it meant to beat Virginia. We brought it to them. We finished it.”

North Dakota Stuns Southern California

North Dakota had its best Division I season last year, going 24-27 and finishing fourth in the Western Athletic Conference with a 16-11 league mark. From that team, however, the Fighting Hawks lost 12 seniors, including three players who were drafted or signed as free agents.

So it wasn’t much of a surprise to coach Jeff Dodson when his team was picked to finish ninth in the WAC in the coaches’ preseason poll.

“Preseason polls, I’ve never worried about them,” Dodson said. “Anytime lose guys like that in lineup, it’s tough to recover from. People see that and don’t know some of the names of the kids we signed.”

If the Fighting Hawks were flying under the radar coming into the season, their opening weekend result changed all of that. In the weekend’s most surprising upset, North Dakota went into Dedeaux Field in Los Angeles and twice beat No. 16 Southern California, before losing the series finale Sunday, 7-6.

North Dakota started the weekend with a 1-0 victory on Opening Day, led by a phenomenal start by junior lefthander Zach Muckenhirn. He threw a three-hit shutout, striking out nine batters and walking one. Trojans righthander Kyle Davis nearly matched Muckenhirn, but the Fighting Hawks scratched out a run and made it stand up for their first victory against a ranked team. Dodson would later call it “the biggest win” in program history.

North Dakota came back the next day and clinched the series with a 5-4 victory. Again it got a strong pitching performance, but North Dakota’s offense helped out its pitchers with five runs in the first five innings, including back-to-back fourth-inning homers from Daniel Lockhert and Connor Trygstad.

With Saturday’s victory, the biggest win in program history became the biggest series win in program history. Dodson said the keys to the upset were the Fighting Hawks’ pitching, competitive mentality and a new indoor practice facility that meant they had been able to practice more this winter.

“We have talented kids, but our kids are playing with a lot of grit, a lot of heart and have a chip on their shoulder,” he said.

Having beaten USC, there is no letup for North Dakota. Its first eight games this year are all against Power Five conference opponents. Next up is a series at Alabama.

“Bama is a beast of a different nature,” Dodson said. “Those SEC teams, they’re really good. They just opened new stadium and it’s an electric atmosphere.”

North Carolina Knocks Off UCLA

North Carolina, after seeing its 13-year streak of making the NCAA Tournament end last season, faced a stern test on opening weekend, travelling across the country to play No. 10 UCLA. But the Tar Heels answered the challenge, taking two games against the Bruins at Jackie Robinson Stadium.

After the way 2015 finished, coach Mike Fox said it was good to get 2016 off to a good start.

“I told our players if you want (people) to quit talking about last year, you’ve got to give them something to talk about this year,” Fox said. “That’s easier said than done, but maybe that’s the start of the conversation. It’s nice to get the taste of last year out of our mouth, if you will, and start a new season.”

The Tar Heels got solid pitching performances all weekend, holding UCLA to 14 hits across the three games. Junior righthander Zac Gallen (7.2 IP, 4 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 11 K) set the tone Friday night, as North Carolina won, 4-0, on Opening Day. Sophomore righty J.B. Bukaukas (4.2 IP, 1 H 4 R 2 ER 3 BB 9 K) followed it up with a solid start Saturday, though he took a no-decision.

In Sunday’s rubber match, the Tar Heels jumped out to an early lead, twice taking three-run leads. Though UCLA rallied twice and tied the game at 5 in the sixth inning, North Carolina remained resilient and, instead of folding, retook command of the game game with five runs in the seventh and broke it open with four more in the ninth for a 14-5 victory.

“That certainly was a good statement for us,” Fox said. “You can talk about being resilient and having each other’s back and picking each other up, but when see it happen, it says a lot about your character.”

Offensively, UNC got a big performance Sunday from outfielder Tyler Ramirez (2-for-5, HR, 2B, 3 RBIs), who was celebrating his 21st birthday. Outfielder Tyler Lynn, first baseman Brian Miller and shortstop Logan Warmouth all added two hits in the series finale.

While North Carolina got the season started the way it wanted, UCLA will have to make some adjustments. The Bruins are breaking in several young players and went into the season banged up, missing catcher Darrell Miller Jr. (out for the season due to labrum surgery) and shortstop Nick Valaika (broken hamate).

Eight For Omaha

Each week, I’ll update my projected College World Series field based on the latest week’s games: California, Florida, Louisville, Miami, Oregon State, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Virginia.

This is the same eight that I first projected back in June. Nothing happened in the offseason to alter my perception of these teams, and one weekend didn’t provide enough data on these teams to make any changes now. Only Cal had a losing record this weekend, dropping two games at Duke. But both losses were one-run games, and Cal crossed the country to play an ACC team on opening weekend. I’ll look for them to rebound.

Weekend Standouts

Arizona: The Wildcats began coach Jay Johnson’s tenure in charge of the program with a series victory at Conference USA-favorite Rice. Preseason All-American Bobby Dalbec had a rough weekend at the plate (1-for-11, 7 SO), but did pick up a victory Saturday with 2 2/3 scoreless innings out of the bullpen.

Luken Baker, rhp/dh, Texas Christian: Sunday was a day to remember for Baker. The heralded freshman won his collegiate pitching debut (6 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 6 K) and hit his first career home run, as TCU defeated Loyola Marymount, 5-0, and coach Jim Schlossnagle became the winningest coach in program history.

Aaron Civale and Dustin Hunt, rhps, Northeastern: Instead of Oklahoma’s highly regarded duo of Jake Elliott and Alec Hansen, it was Civale and Hunt who made waves this weekend. The Huskies won the two games they started and split their four-game series with the No. 21 Sooners.

Heath Quinn, of, Samford: The junior hit for the cycle Saturday and helped Samford to a four-game sweep against Butler. Through four games, Quinn is hitting .625 (10-for-16) with three home runs, nine runs and nine RBIs.
Wright State: The Horizon League favorites swept a four-game series at Elon, scoring 43 runs in the process. Catcher Sean Murphy, expected to be a high draft pick in June, hit two home runs and threw out a would-be basestealer.

Looking Ahead

Three weekend series we’re most excited for:

(1) Florida at (6) Miami: One of the premier rivalries in college baseball has added juice this year with both teams coming off trips to the College World Series and beginning the season ranked in the Top 10. Both swept their opening weekend series (Florida handling Atlantic Sun Conference-favorite Florida Gulf Coast and Miami beating Rutgers), setting up a showdown of two clubs with national championship aspirations.

(2) Louisville at (24) Mississippi: Louisville coach Dan McDonnell spent six years at Mississippi, serving as coach Mike Bianco’s recruiting coordinator. Since leaving Oxford for Louisville, McDonnell has faced his former boss seven times and holds a 4-3 advantage. They will meet again this weekend, with both teams coming off opening weekend sweeps.

(9) Oklahoma State at North Carolina: Fresh off its series win at UCLA, North Carolina will return home to face another team that entered the year ranked in the Top 10. Oklahoma State split its four games at the Clay Gloud Classic in Arlington, Texas. The three-game series in Chapel Hill will be the teams’ first meeting since the Cowboys beat the Tar Heels in the 1960 College World Series.

Two Weekend Tournaments You Shouldn’t Miss

Shriners Hospitals for Children College Classic: The former Houston College Classic has become annually one of the best early-season tournaments and this year’s is no exception. Three teams in the field began the season ranked (Houston, Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas Christian), and the other three (Arkansas, Rice and Texas Tech) all have lofty expectations as well.

Tony Gwynn Memorial Classic: This is the first year of the tournament named for the Hall of Famer and former San Diego State coach. Hosted by San Diego and San Diego State, it is a true tournament, and brings in a solid assortment of teams from across the country (Arizona, Bryant, Kentucky, Nebraska, San Diego, San Diego State, Tulane and UC Santa Barbara).

One Midweek Game To Keep An Eye On

Maryland at Virginia Commonwealth (Wednesday, 3 p.m. ET): Two super regional teams from last year get together for an early-season matchup. The Terrapins lost their opening series at Alabama, while the Rams went 2-1 in the Atlanta Challenge. Maryland freshman John Murphy, the centerpiece of its 22nd-ranked recruiting class, is expected to make his college debut.

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