(Photo via the Tennessean, seen here)
In Cookeville, TN, a town with 30,000 people, there’s a small school of just over 10,000 students. The Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles are members of the Ohio Valley Conference – a conference that doesn’t scream nationally competitive like the SEC, Big 12, or Pac 12. In fact, the rest of the conference was only moderately competitive in overall play this season.
The OVC got two bids for this year’s NCAA Baseball Tournament – Tennessee Tech and Morehead State. The latter was bounced in the Clemson Regional after losing two straight matchups. The former advanced to the Supers. The Golden Eagles were able to win their first matchup in the Oxford Regional, beating a competitive Missouri State team 6-4. They then dropped a close game to the region’s host, the Ole Miss Rebels, 9-8. Then, staving off elimination, beat Missouri State for a second time, this time by a score of 2-1. That set TTU up for a June 4 date with the Rebels. By clobbering Ole Miss in game one by a score of 15-5, Tech had setup a winner-take-all scenario with a top five team in the nation. They performed well under pressure, scoring the go ahead run in the 7th inning of a tightly contested 3-2 ballgame.
Tennessee Tech rallies from a 2-0 deficit to beat Ole Miss and make its first-ever NCAA Super Regional. https://t.co/E4OSWXRPwe
— WSMV News4 Nashville (@WSMV) June 5, 2018
Tennessee Tech takes down Ole Miss! pic.twitter.com/KfuB9YPAQz
— Baseball Bros (@BaseballBros) June 5, 2018
In terms of financial flexibility and resources, Tennessee Tech truly is a Cinderella contender. Here are some thoughts around Twitter:
This Tennessee Tech thing is an incredible story. Matt Bragga has done a great job with @TNTech_Baseball for a long time, & their numbers are incredible this year, but this is a huge statement on a totally different level. The gap between TTU's resources and Ole Miss' is enormous
— Aaron Fitt (@aaronfitt) June 5, 2018
Tennessee Tech is your college baseball Cinderella this year. Athletic budget of about $14.5 million just knocked Ole Miss, athletic budget of $110 million, out of the NCAA Tournament. Texas next.
— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) June 5, 2018
The completion of the Oxford Regional setup a three game series in Austin, TX versus the storied Texas Longhorns. At this point, everyone in the nation that follows college baseball realized that Tennessee Tech is a legitimate threat, but they still may be perceived as somewhat of an underdog – how long could they sustain this success? On the heels of a strong showing in the regionals, Tech went in and took game one in Austin, beating Texas 5-4, securing their first ever Supers win, and positioning themselves just one win away from Omaha.
How did they do it all season? Mostly by slugging their way into success. Tennessee Tech led the nation in home runs, and it wasn’t particularly close. Through 57 games, Tech launched 128 home runs, which bested second place Clemson by 33 round trippers. Leading the team’s offensive onslaught is first baseman Chase Chambers, who went in the 18th round of this year’s MLB First Year Player Draft. Chambers has 17 home runs with 82 RBIs. But it hasn’t just been one or two players leading the charge. The Eagles have seven hitters with double digit home runs, four of whom have more than 15. Their offensive onslaught works out to 2.25 home runs per game, which is nearly one home run more per game than the second closest adversary.
Back to Back 💣💣 for Tennessee Tech after Osborne and Kaleiwahea go yard!
Top 4 | OLE MISS 2 | TENN TECH 2 pic.twitter.com/dmQXTpkpt9
— NCAA Baseball (@NCAACWS) June 3, 2018
The team also scored almost 600 runs this season, which was first in all of Division 1 baseball, by 75 runs. It was evident that the offense has been the biggest asset for this team. A club with a 4.91 team ERA, it was crucial that the Golden Eagles obliterated their opponents with the bats en route to a 52-10 record, and .839 winning percentage.
What’s also been special throughout this run is that when the pitching wasn’t there, the offense proved just how volatile it can be; conversely, when the bats fell quiet, the pitching stepped up and showed that this club can really do it all when pressed.
Things weren’t quite falling into place, however, in an elimination game at Disch-Falk Field in Austin. For starters, a ball that looked to assuredly be a fly ball out to left field for the Longhorns’ Kody Clemens landed just beyond the fence, extending the Texas lead to 3-0 in third inning.
You’ve gotta be kidding me. Kody Clemens hits what appears to be a pop up … but it goes out for a HR to LF. Unreal.
— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogers) June 11, 2018
That score would be enough to hold off Tech, who only plated a pair of runs on the day. But DJ Petrinsky added another solo shot a batter later in the inning. A mistake by Chase Chambers in the sixth led to Texas’ fifth and final run of the game, when he missed an infield popup in front of home plate that caromed off his body and into foul ground, scoring Tate Shaw from second base.
Oh my. Chase Chambers makes his second mistake of the game. Earlier, he didn’t go after a foul ball near the dugout, now, he drops a pop up near home plate — and a run scores. @TexasBaseball now leads 5-2. That was bad.
— Kendall Rogers (@KendallRogers) June 11, 2018
At no point in this season has Tech felt like they were out of the game. They came in perhaps as the most confident team in the nation, at least that appeared to be the case judging by starting pitcher Travis Moth’s assertions:
“We are winning it. We are winning this regional. We’re winning the super regional and we are going to Omaha. We’re the best team in the nation.”
— Justin Beasley (@JBeasleyWSMV) May 28, 2018
Then, according to Beasley’s Twitter, Moths doubled down on his original assertion after knocking off Ole Miss in Oxford:
Travis Moths (@travis_moths) is the gift that keeps on giving:
“I know we can beat Texas. We’re going to make it to the World Series, baby.”
— Justin Beasley (@JBeasleyWSMV) June 5, 2018
The Golden Eagles didn’t go quietly in the ninth, either. A single by David Garza led off the inning, followed by a strikeout. After a walk, John Ham approached the plate as the tying run. He belted a ball to deep left, only to be tracked down on the warning track – the color commentator mentioned how the wind wasn’t blowing quite like it had been earlier. But Tech managed to load the bases, and Nolan Kingham of Texas was in a precarious spot. Brennon Kaleiwahea stepped up with a chance to make history for the Eagles. He posted a dramatic at bat. After taking the first pitch for a ball, he proceeded to foul off four in a row, one of which was laced down the line. The drama, and the spark, eventually ran out on this story, as Kaleiwahea bounced a ball to the shortstop who made a clean transfer and throw to first, extending Texas’ season, and ending Tech’s.
Alas, the Cinderella story came to a close Monday afternoon in Austin. The blue blood program that the University of Texas has put together punched its card to Omaha, the 36th time the program has ever been. It wasn’t without late inning drama, though. The Golden Eagles fought hard; if not for a couple mistakes and some stubborn wind, they may be the ones headed to Omaha for the first time in program history.
What this team accomplished this season was impressive. It shouldn’t be overshadowed just because they weren’t rewarded with a trip to Omaha. If nothing else, this should lend credence to the baseball program in Cookeville, a team that plays in a stadium that only seats 1,100. It should also serve as a proxy to all the other mid-major programs, teams that are often overlooked because they don’t have a prestigious name across their uniform. It’s not the first time a small school has done something special, and it won’t be the last. Tennessee Tech helped to extend the legacy of the little school – the school that has to work hard for its right to play.
If nothing else, this season put Tennessee Tech on the map.