A baseball team representing East Carolina University won a national championship this past week.
You probably thought the Pirates’ season ended over Memorial Day weekend when they were denied an NCAA tournament bid by losing to Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship game.
Well, they did.
But that was the varsity team. Though not as well publicized or funded, ECU also fields a club team that unbeknownst to most, was ranked No. 1 in nation most of this season and has been a national power since winning its first title in 2011.
That group of Pirates advanced to the Club College World Series each of the past three years, making it all the way to the championship game a year ago. This time, as the tournament’s top seed playing in nearby Holly Springs, they closed the deal and brought home the trophy.
And in dramatic fashion.
After playing nine scoreless innings against third-seeded Central Florida on Thursday, Nick Venditti came up to the plate in the bottom of the 10th with teammate Tyler Sholar on second base and drilled a line drive to left for a single. In a scene reminiscent of Sid Bream chugging to the plate for the Atlanta Braves in the 1992 playoffs against Pittsburgh, Sholar barely beat the throw home, sliding in with the winning run to set off a wild celebration.
The 1-0 victory rewarded an incredible pitching performance by fifth-year senior Tanner Duncan, who pitched a complete game shutout in the most important game of his life. The tournament MVP, Duncan won both his starts in the World Series, throwing 18 innings without allowing a run while striking out 23.
As dominant as Duncan was, coach Brian Fox wasn’t about to take his ace out of the game — even after he soared past the 100-pitch mark in the top of the eighth.
“He kept saying he wanted to keep going and I wanted him to keep going,” said Fox, a former assistant who took over the head coaching duties this season. “We decided in the eighth inning that if he got one on, we were going to go get him. But from that point on, he decided he wasn’t going to let anybody else on.”
Duncan was hardly the only ECU pitcher to have success in Holly Springs. Collectively, the Pirates allowed only one run in the entire tournament while shutting out Michigan State 6-0 and Nevada 17-0 before scoring a 6-1 semifinal victory against Penn State.
Thursday’s final was the first time the Pirates were tested and they passed with flying colors. But that shouldn’t have come as a surprise considering that the core of the team has been together through the majority of its run of four straight Club World Series appearances.
“For me, it means everything to work really hard with these guys for so long,” Fox said, “and to get them back to this point.”
Though the caliber of play in club baseball is nowhere near that of the varsity level at which coach Cliff Godwin’s ECU team plays, Fox and his players approach the game just as seriously. One member of the club team’s roster, senior catcher Jake Merzigan, spent time earlier in his career as a walk-on with the varsity squad.
Each player must try out to earn a spot on the team, then either pay or raise $300 a semester to play, according to an article on the ECU Now blog.
That’s a small investment, considering the payoff the club Pirates received last week. It’s also a nice gift to a school that has had very little to cheer about athletically during a 2016-17 academic year.
“We’ve been together, some of us, for five years,” Duncan said at a press conference after ECU’s national championship victory. “We’ve been here four straight years, had some heartbreaks, but we’re on top of the world now.”