A year ago, an excited Campbell baseball team huddled inside the Sports Zone restaurant to watch the NCAA selection show, positive it would hear its named called after winning a school-record 49 games.
They were positively wrong. The broadcast concluded with no mention of Campbell, leaving the heartbroken Camels robbed of their appetite and a tournament spot. Not since Captain McCluskey sat down to eat with Michael Corleone had a dinner ended so painfully.
“Last year at the Sports Zone was the worst day of all our lives,” Campbell star closer Ryan Thompson said.
“We didn’t even eat food last year,” senior third baseman Elijah Trail added. “We just watched it and left.”
Campbell returned to the scene Monday, a year later, knowing this occasion would be more joyous after winning the Big South tournament to clinch its first NCAA regional berth since 1990. The only drama Monday was who the Camels would face.
“It was so much fun,” said Trail, who was named to the all-tournament team along with Steven Leonard and Matt Nadolski. “Last year we had a feeling like we were going somewhere, but this year we actually knew we were going somewhere.
“… The atmosphere was really great. All the fans were there giving us support; it was a really good time.”
The Camels (40-19) learned they would be the No. 4 seed in the Columbia Regional and face No. 1 seed South Carolina (42-16) at 7 p.m. Friday (ESPN3.com). No. 2 seed Maryland (36-21) and No. 3 Old Dominion (36-24) complete the field in the double-elimination regional.
There was no denying last year’s disappointment, set up by a loss in the conference tournament, set the tone for this season’s title run.
“That was the first thing we talked about in our first meeting. I felt like I had to address that from the get-go,” Campbell coach Greg Goff said. “I said, ‘Hey guys we’re going to use this as motivation. We’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves. We’re going to go out this year and prove to folks that we did deserve to get in, and we’re going to work hard every day and at the end we’re going to make sure that we did everything we needed to, to get the job done this year.’ ”
The players rose to the challenge, winning five straight after dropping the opening game of the Big South tournament last week, and Goff said their mentality is a big reason they became the second team in program history to reach the regionals.
“I think the biggest thing is the character of these guys,” Goff said. “There’s no doubt talent-wise we may be a step or two behind last year’s team, but the biggest difference between last year’s team and this year is that these guys this year knew we had to win the tournament. Last year we felt like if we got to the championship game we were in (the NCAAs).”
Campbell is well aware of its mid-major status, but after beating N.C. State, Missouri and Virginia Tech this season, they will arrive in Columbia armed with confidence.
“We know we can beat these kinds of teams,” said center fielder Matt Nadolski, who’s batting .303 with a team-high five home runs. “We know if we play well enough and play team baseball we have a chance of winning every game.”
Thompson, the Big South tournament MVP, who enters regional play with a 6-2 record and the sixth-best ERA in the nation (1.22), agreed.
“To an extent it doesn’t really matter who we play,” Thompson said. “We’re a team with a pretty solid identity. We’re a mid-major team that’s not going to be as talented as South Carolina; we realize that, but we have intangibles that maybe they don’t have. We know that we have to play at our very best to beat them and I think that we will.”
After waiting a year, Goff can’t wait to get going.
“They’re ready,” Goff said. “We played some really good teams this year. I don’t know if South Carolina is the best team we’ve played all year, but I know this: I know we prepared ourselves for it. We feel like we’ve outworked South Carolina and everybody else in the country.
“… Friday’s just a little bit bigger of a stage, but I’m hoping these guys will respond and be ready to show everybody else what Campbell baseball is all about.”