Winthrop baseball’s NCAA Tournament dream died in a dusty sweat on Sunday.
The Eagles (27-33) made an improbable jaunt to the finals of the Big South Conference tournament with three wins in four days, but crashed with a thud against Campbell, falling 9-1. The Camels (40-19) earned their first NCAA tourney berth since 1990.
Afterward, both coaches were tearful. Campbell coach Greg Goff became emotional as he considered his team’s journey from 364 days ago when Liberty beat the Camels 2-1 in last year’s Big South Conference championship game, a crushing loss for his burgeoning program.
“Our guys, from a whole year from now, have been looking for an opportunity, and today I thought they just came out with a great approach,” said Goff.
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And Winthrop coach Tom Riginos had to pause mid-interview to collect himself when he reflected on the Eagles’ unlikely run to the finals, which saw them beat No. 1 seed Liberty on Saturday to get a shot at the NCAA Tournament, which has eluded the program since 2006.
“I’m very proud of my guys,” said Riginos. “We came in and did an outstanding job. I’m proud of the way they competed, and it’s something to build on. The guys competed their butt off and it’s gonna be a lot to build on for next year.”
The Camels scored three runs off Winthrop starter Sam Kmiec in the first inning, and added runs in the second, seventh, and four in the eighth that all but sealed the deal. Winthrop managed 10 hits but stranded five runners combined in the fourth and fifth innings, the Eagles' best shot at hanging with the psyched-up Camels.
“We just couldn’t get the big hit,” said Riginos. “We just couldn’t get that big hit, whereas the last couple of days we got that big hit.”
Kmiec might have known it was going to an uphill slug when he one-hopped his first pitch past catcher Babe Thomas. Campbell's Steven Leonard, the rare leadoff-hitting catcher, singled, then advanced on a sacrifice bunt. Leonard stole third and scored when Matt Nadolski smoked a shot over the right-fielder's head. Campbell made it 2-0 when Will Albertson traded places with Nadolski at second, and 3-0 when Seth LaRue added an RBI single. LaRue was thrown out at second trying to stretch his single, but the message had been delivered.
“You’re talking about a guy that’s had five complete games,” Goff, said, referring to Kmiec, who threw a five-hit shutout in Winthrop’s tournament-opener last Tuesday. “I thought we had a good approach early and scored some runs and kind of took the pressure to them.”
The Camels made it 4-0 in the second. Elijah Trail ripped a single to lead off, Clayton Brown drew a walk and Brooks Borders’ sac bunt moved both into scoring position with one out. Leonard delivered a sacrifice fly to score Trail and add to the lead.
“You’ve got to hit the ball the other way,” said Goff. “You try to lift (Kmiec) and pull him, you’ll get yourself out. He’s got really good stuff; just thought we centered some balls up and used the whole field.”
Campbell started Hector Cedano, who improved to 8-0 on the year with the win, had little trouble with the Eagles. Winthrop limited most of its offense to two-out situations, preventing Riginos’ team from using its effective small-ball game to move runners around. Clay Altman’s two-out single was a perfect example in the bottom of the second. Brad Kaczka followed with a ground-ball out to end the inning.
Winthrop only got the leadoff man on base in one inning, the third, when the hosts scored their lone run of the game. Shortstop Kyle Edwards, who was 3-for-4, singled to open the bottom half of the third, although he was cut off at second by Campbell shortstop John Reilly, who tossed to the second baseman from his belly to get the force out. It was only one of several nifty defensive plays Reilly made Sunday.
“John Reilly played outstanding at shortstop today,” said Goff. “Amazing what he did for us today.”
But after Leighton Daniels got to second on a wild pitch, T.J. Olesczuk rocketed a shot into right field to make it 4-1.
Kmiec settled down and got seven straight batters out at one juncture, while the Eagles’ bats warmed. They got two men on in the bottom of the fourth after Altman singled with two outs and Kaczka reached on an error by the left-fielder. But Edwards popped out to end that inning, stranding two.
The Eagles loaded the bases in the bottom of the fifth with one out, singles by Daniels and Olesczuk ending Cedano’s day on the mound. Bobby Thorson came in and walked Cody Dolan to load the bags, but then got Babe Thomas to strike out and John Menken to hit into a fielder’s choice force-out at second to end the inning, stranding another three runners.
On a day when breezes were rare, those two innings seemed to take the air out of the Eagles. Campbell consolidated its lead with another run in the seventh on Reilly’s RBI single, before pushing four across in the eighth to push the lead to 9-1. After making just one error in the previous three games, Winthrop erred twice in the eighth, Borders’ two-run double pushing the Camels’ lead to eight runs before Jason Driver, on in relief of Kmiec, got the final out.
After an unlikely run to the conference tournament championship game at Winthrop’s home stadium, an even more unlikely rally in the ninth never materialized. The Eagles were left to watch as the Camels pulled on celebratory t-shirts and hoisted the league's championship hardware.
“It’s almost like a bus going 100 miles per hour and it comes to a screeching halt, and it comes to a halt quickly,” said Riginos. “You’ve got to look back at the body of work this year, especially the last three weeks of the season, I’m really proud of our guys.”