The wide eyes are less prevalent for the University of Charleston baseball team this time around in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional tournament. Last year, after the Golden Eagles won their first Mountain East Conference tournament to reach the postseason, it was a new adventure.
After this year’s MEC tournament win, UC coach Andrew Wright said it’s now a business trip.
“I think that we belong,” he said. “I think there’s a different mindset. The mood in the room and the expectations, you can kind of see it on their faces. This isn’t a vacation. This isn’t, ‘Hey, we get to play a couple more games.’ This is ‘Let’s win a regional.’”
Charleston’s opportunity to do just that begins at 2 p.m. Thursday in West Chester, Pennsylvania, where the sixth-seeded Golden Eagles (37-17) will face third-seeded Gannon (32-15). The loser of that game faces No. 2-seeded West Chester on Friday.
If the Game 1 loser loses to West Chester, that team is eliminated and the remaining two teams go to a best-of-three series to decide who advances. If West Chester loses, it plays the Game 1 winner. If West Chester wins that one and all three teams remain with one loss each, the tournament will use an alternate bracket.
What helps UC is that the team has been in a must-win mode for much of the last month. Despite a strong win total, the Golden Eagles’ ranking in the Atlantic Region wasn’t conducive to an at-large bid. In order to reach a regional, Charleston needed to qualify for and win the MEC tournament to secure an automatic bid.
In that quest for a tournament title in Beckley, Charleston was, rather than the “Kardiac Kids,” the “EKG Eagles.” The Golden Eagles won their first two games on extra-inning walk-off hits. Their championship game against Notre Dame College stretched between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon due to fog, and UC had to come back in that game to win the title.
That gives Charleston plenty of experience with the anything-can-happen nature of the postseason.
“Our guys are about prepared for anything,” Wright said. “Obviously, you want the comfort of being ranked high enough to get an at-large bid, but there’s also a lot of comfort that comes with that late in the season. So when you’re playing with a sense of urgency down the stretch, the way we had to, you stay more sharp from a competitive standpoint.
“If our guys can get through last weekend,” he added, “they can get through anything.”
Gannon enters the regional tournament with a program-record 32 wins and its first outright Pennsylvania State Athletic Confernence West Division regular-season title under its belt. But the Golden Knights gave up a total of 21 runs in the two losses that knocked them out of the PSAC tournament.
Gannon brings power to the plate, owning a PSAC-best 62 home runs this season. The Golden Knights also have one of the league’s top pitchers in Deven Judy, fourth in the PSAC with a 2.34 ERA and undefeated at 7-0.
Charleston counters with a speedy, aggressive group that has stolen 131 bases so far this year. Outfielder Colby Johnson brings a keen eye and powerful bat to the plate, leading the Golden Eagles with a .363 batting average and nine home runs. Senior Jack Brunetti is a dual threat, with a .333 average to go win a 9-1 record and 3.15 ERA on the mound.
Wright has described his team’s play as “Jekyll and Hyde.” When it’s playing clean baseball, it’s tough to beat. When mistakes crop up, it leads to a long day. Wright believes the team is more Jekyll than Hyde right now.
“I think our guys, their mindset is focused enough on taking care of business that we should have a great weekend,” he said.