How Much Longer Will Cinderella’s Slipper Fit?
By CB360 Contributor Kevin Kennedy
Late last September, members of the University of California baseball team were told by school officials the program was going to be eliminated because of budget cuts. Those who wanted to continue their college baseball careers would have to play elsewhere in 2012.
Instead of letting that crushing news affect their on-field performance, the Cal team came together to make what looked to be the last season of Bears baseball a memorable one.
“I gave them the option. I said if you need a day or two to collect yourself, talk to your parents, or come to our office to talk to [the coaches], I’m okay with it,” said Cal head coach David Esquer. “They said, ‘We’re practicing today.’ ”
Eight-and-a-half months later, the team not only will return in 2012, but their magical 2011 season will continue all the way to the College World Series.
No. 3 regional seed California (37-21) continued to roll through the NCAA Baseball Tournament with a 6-2 victory over fellow Cinderella Dallas Baptist (42-20) to sweep the best-of-three Super Regional series Sunday night in Santa Clara.
For the second straight night, Cal used its dominant pitching to put away the high-powered Dallas Baptist offense and advance to Omaha for the first time since 1992 (the sixth CWS appearance in the program’s history).
Esquer and his players seemed to be experiencing a mix of emotions in the postgame news conference. They at times appeared overwhelmed by what this team has gone through since September but they also displayed pride for their team and school and shock that – after the program almost being cut – they are one of eight schools still playing for a national championship, beginning this weekend in Omaha.
The team began fall workouts days after the school announced the program would be cut, and Esquer said his team never let that news affect its on-field performance.
“I said here they are getting some really difficult news that they aren’t happy with, but they aren’t going to back away one inch from their commitment to their team and this program.”
Cal players say going through that situation bonded the team more than ever.
That’s how Cal second basemen and Pac-10 Player of the Year Tony Renda feels. “It definitely brought us closer together,” Renda said after the Super Regional clincher. “Going out to that practice was a team decision. That’s what we love to do, we love to play baseball and we love to be around each other. There’s not a single person on this team I wouldn’t stand up for. I love them like my brothers. This whole year has brought us closer together and it’s a huge part of why we’re here today.”
The program ultimately was spared the budget axe because alumni, former players and fans came together to raise enough funds to keep the program going in the years to come.
Cal players were able to thank those who helped save the program by winning the Super Regional series in front of their fans.
“The only reason we’re around is because of the people who back us, put their hard-earned money behind us and behind this program and supported us through it. I’m forever grateful that they came through for us,” said Renda.
After losing the first game in the Houston Regional, the Bears now have won six straight tournament games, including a come-from-behind, 9-8 win over Baylor to advance to the Super Regional. In that game, the Bears scored twice in the 8th and four more in the bottom of the 9th and were down to their last strike before pulling out the victory.
The six-game winning streak is the team’s longest since a seven-game streak in late March.
Renda was 3-for-5 with an RBI in Sunday’s clincher, after going hitless in Cal’s game-1 win. He said getting back to his pregame rituals was the key to Sunday’s success.
“Chadd [Krist] and I are roommates and we usually eat an apple before every game,” Renda said. ”We forgot to eat our apple yesterday, that’s why we were hitless. We did everything else the same – that’s why we still won. We had our apples today for sure.”
The apple paid off for Krist as well. He was 2-for-4 with a home and 3 RBIs in the clincher.
DBU scored only two runs on seven hits in the series. They hit a lowly .117 (7-for-60) in the two games – thanks to the pitching of Cal starters Justin Jones and Erik Johnson, along with the Golden Bears bullpen.
“They’ve got good arms and they execute the pitches well,” said Patriot head coach Dan Heefner. “We definitely didn’t show what we’ve done most of the year, even against quality arms like that.”
Landon Anderson was the only DBU player with more than one hit in the two games (2-for-7). The Patriots; top hitter Jason Krizan (.419 average entering the series) finished the series 1-for-6.
“I told our guys afterwards that it’s tough to watch a team dogpile at the end of a game, but that also means you put yourself in a pretty special position,” said Heefner. “What that means for our program, time will tell, but it definitely took us to a whole new level.”
The Patriots, an independent, were making their second NCAA Tournament appearance in school history (2008). It was the school’s first Super Regional appearance. DBU baseball made its debut on the Division I level in 2006.
Cal now heads to Omaha as the Cinderella of the CWS. The Bears are the fifth teams since 2007 to reach Omaha after being seeded third of fourth in the Regional round. Fresno State’s “Wonderdog Team” became the first number-four regional seed to win a national championship, in 2008 (since the 64-team format began, in 1999).
The story of the 2011 Cal team has gone from a sad college baseball story to a good college baseball story … and it simply is a great sports story.
The question now is how much longer will this unbelievable story last?
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