CARY — The bus carrying Wingate’s baseball team broke down on the trip home from the Division II College World Series on Saturday.
It was an ironic turn of events considering the exhausting journey the Bulldogs were able to complete without running out of gas — at least figuratively — on the field.
Coach Jeff Gregory’s sixth-seeded team lost its opening game in the double-elimination tournament but bounced back by winning five times in as many days to earn the program’s first national championship.
The Bulldogs completed their improbable run to the title by beating top-seeded Central Missouri 5-3 before a packed house at the USA Baseball National Training Complex.
“I’m going to be at a loss for words, but the one thing I can tell you is that I’m proud of these guys to be able to do this,” Gregory said immediately after the final game.
“They lose the first game in this tournament and you’re playing an elimination game every single time, and it just kept building. To watch them keep the faith, stay with the next pitch so to speak, it’s phenomenal. It’s so exciting for them, so exciting for the university, so exciting for the program.”
Wingate (46-8) is the first team since Florida Southern in 2005 to come all the way through the losers bracket to become national champions. It’s also the first North Carolina school to claim the title since the World Series came to Cary in 2009.
As amazing of an accomplishment as it was, doing things the hard way has become something of a trademark for the Bulldogs.
They pulled off a similar comeback to win the South Atlantic Conference tournament before earning their first World Series berth by sweeping through the Southeast Regional without a loss.
“This goes back into what we talked about all year long and how we need to play the game to be successful,” Gregory said. “You never know how it’s going to transpire, so you need to shrink everything down, focus on something you really need to focus on and not get caught up in the environment.”
That, however, is exactly what happened to the Bulldogs. They fell behind in the opening inning of their first game — against second-seeded Angelo State — and never seriously threatened in a 6-2 loss that didn’t bode well for a long stay in Cary.
But unlike other first-time World Series participants, they quickly adapted.
“One of the pieces I recognized with this team is that anytime you throw something new at them, they may struggle with it the first time,” Gregory said. “But then they understood how to take it all in, learn from it and move forward with it.”
There were no fiery speeches either after the game or at practice during the day off that followed, no reminders of how difficult the task ahead would be or what needed to be done to turn things around.
The team simply got back to business on Tuesday by holding on for a 3-2 victory against Southern New Hampshire. The momentum continued to build the next day with a 5-1 win against Seton Hill, highlighted by a complete game pitching performance from graduate right-hander David Nash.
The Bulldogs then beat both Mother Nature and Angelo State on Thursday to force a decisive third meeting between the teams. Because of the way they won, catcher Logan McNeely and his teammates began to believe they might be in the process of accomplishing something special.
“After beating Angelo State, I felt like we really had a great shot at winning this thing,” McNeely, the tournament MVP, said of a game that saw Wingate squander a 4-0 eighth-inning lead only to win it in the ninth on a bases-loaded single by Hunter Dula on the first pitch following a 2½-hour rain delay.
“There was a roller coaster of emotions the entire week. Each guy on the team grinded every at-bat, every pitch, and the key was taking it one game at a time.”
The Bulldogs earned their trip to the final by surviving another late Angelo State comeback for an 8-7 11-inning victory, then finished the job in style by knocking off the nation’s No. 1-ranked team.
McNeely drove in the tying run and Gehrig Christopher singled home what proved to be the game-winner as part of a fifth-inning rally that turned a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 lead. Although pinch hitter Grayson Chapman added an insurance run in the seventh, it wasn’t needed thanks to Sam Broderson’s work out of the bullpen.
The freshman right-hander, who pitched as many as three innings in a game only once all season, retired 13 of the final 14 Mules he faced — including a strikeout of Scott Wolverton that led to a pile of happy Bulldogs.
“It’s kind of tough because you have all those people on top of you,” Broderson said. “But you’re not really worried about that in the moment because you’re just happy for the win. I’m not feeling the full effect of the win yet, but it’s definitely awesome.”