Nathan Helvey was thinking that a surreal day had only gotten more weird when the College of Charleston baseball team’s bus was suddenly surrounded by flashing lights at about 1 a.m. Tuesday morning. But as the bus approached West Ashley, S.C., on its way back from Gainesville, Fla., the Cougars weren’t being pulled over by state troopers; they were being escorted home.
Monte Lee’s crew was worthy of the entourage after becoming just the fourth No. 4 seed to win an NCAA Regional since the tournament field was enlarged to 64 teams in 1999. No. 16 Charleston (44-17) now advances to its second Super Regional in program history, the other coming in 2006. The Cougars face No. 23 Texas Tech at Rip Griffin Park Saturday at 1 p.m., in a matchup that sold out in one hour on Tuesday.
Maybe by Saturday reality will have settled on the Charleston program.
“It almost didn’t seem real,” said Helvey, who graduated from Fort Mill High School in 2012. “We’re watching ESPN on the way home on the bus and kept watching our name go across the bottom.”
The Cougars celebrated in a near-empty McKethan Stadium at the University of Florida. The stadium was barren because College of Charleston had helped knock out the host Gators with a 3-2 win on May 30, before topping Long Beach State Monday night for the second time in three days to spark a carnal dog-pile.
As the Cougars stack up championships, Helvey is learning the science of celebrating. After winning the Colonial Athletic Association championship two weeks ago, Helvey got caught in the base of that pile. He was fortunate to be in the bullpen getting loose when Charleston pitcher Tyler Thornton finished off his complete game victory Monday.
“I could just kind of run in and jump on top,” said Helvey. “It was obviously a lot of fun for the second time to do that this year.”
“He’s a pretty big boy,” said teammate Ben Boykin, who was warming up relievers in the bullpen when Thornton got the final out. “We all sprinted out of the bullpen, and I think Helvey, he might be a little faster than me too because he beat me to the dogpile. I got to jump on whoever, I don’t know.”
Boykin, who played catcher at Nation Ford High School before a two-year stint at Spartanburg Methodist, played in 56 of 57 games as Charleston’s designated hitter last year. He batted (left-handed) .268 with 16 doubles and knocked in 28 runs for the Cougars, but found less success at the plate this season, hitting .237 in 44 games thus far.
The 6-foot, 205-pound senior does have three home runs and 17 RBI. Boykin hit arguably his most important dinger recently, a two-run homer in the Cougars’ 6-2 win over Long Beach State on May 31, and was named to the All-Regional team, despite the round-tripper being his only hit of the three games in Gainesville.
“I guess that was a pretty big hit,” he said with a chuckle.
Helvey, a hulking 6-foot-4, 240-pound sophomore right-hander, was the team’s fourth starting pitcher. His brief bio on the team’s web site says he wants to be a U.S. Marshal, and he certainly looks the part already. Helvey was a Friday starter earlier in the season, but has since moved to the bullpen. He has a 3-4 ledger with a 3.78 ERA, 54 strikeouts and just 19 walks in 69 innings of work.
Helvey threw a perfect eighth inning in the same Cougar win over Long Beach in which Boykin homered. His first two pitches were balls, but he took a deep breath and found his spots, getting the next three batters out and setting up closer Michael Hanzlik to shut the door on the Californians. Every little bit counted for the Cougars down in Gainesville.
Boykin said he wasn’t surprised at all that his team was still practicing this week, and still talking to newspaper reporters. He credited pitching coach Matt Heath for the work he’s done with Charleston’s three starters, two freshmen - Bailey Ober and Thornton - and a redshirt sophomore - Taylor Clarke -, and said that the team believed it was good enough to justify its current elite status.
Maybe Helvey was a little more caught off guard by Charleston’s success, which has the Cougars two wins removed from the College World Series.
“As a mid-major you’re always gonna be surprised when you accomplish something that big for your program,” he said.
But with expectations realigned, Helvey, Boykin and the Cougars know that the Super Regional is up for grabs, especially against a Texas Tech program that‘s never advanced so far.
“At the beginning of the year you obviously set those goals, but it’s kind of crazy how everything’s unfolded,” said Helvey. “Obviously, we met one of those goals, but it’s not over yet and we’re just two wins away from being college baseball royalty.”
Two wins away from another dog-pile. And another police escort befitting royalty.
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T