Tuesday, 13 June 2017 16:06

Wildcats earn respect on the grand stage

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Dick Cooke’s 27th Davidson team finished a program-best 35-26. Dick Cooke’s 27th Davidson team finished a program-best 35-26. Tim Cowie

The ending of the season was still fresh Saturday night when Dick Cooke climbed onto the team bus outside Texas A&M’s Blue Bell Park and found a handwritten note waiting for him.

Davidson’s longtime baseball coach assumed it was from a team parent, but it wasn’t. It was from an Aggies fan commending the Wildcats on their run and how they played in the Super Regionals.

Similar e-mails have poured into his inbox from Aggie fans and others from across the country, including one from a father in Ohio, who watched every pitch of Davidson’s postseason along with his 13-year-old son. His son had never heard of Davidson prior to the tournament, but now he wants to play for the Wildcats in a 15-inning Super Regional game.

“A lot of people were paying attention,” Cooke said upon arrival back in Davidson Sunday afternoon.

The far-reaching impact of Davidson’s magical run, against the odds, may never be known. What is known is how close they were to continuing it. One more two-out hit and one more clean catch, and the Wildcats might just be in Omaha for the College World Series this week. That a team with a fourth of the athletic scholarships of the top programs was near the pinnacle of the sport made them an easy fan favorite.

Senior Will Robertson said he’ll remember “how everyone rallied around us for a couple weeks and what that felt like.”

“Right now I still have some of the sting of just being so close,” he said. “A few breaks here, a few breaks there and we’re going to Omaha. But I think I’ll remember the feeling of being around my teammates, how many people reached out.”

The Wildcats lose three seniors from the everyday lineup — catcher Jake Sidwell, first baseman Brian Fortier and right fielder Robertson — along with ace pitcher Durin O’Linger and closer Westin Whitmire. Robertson led the team with a .333 average and 18 home runs, while Fortier hit .300 with 15 home runs and a team-best 54 RBIs. Sidwell was a rock behind the plate and called almost all the pitches. Whitmire set the single-season program record with 13 saves. O’Linger grew a beard, embodied the team’s determination and made the impossible seem probable.

The Wildcats lose 11 seniors in all.

“That’s going to be a challenging group to replace in a lot of regards,” said Cooke. “Now we get to see who fills these shoes and see who steps up. The nerve-wracking thing as a coach is, ‘Oh my gosh, I hope someone steps up.’”

Leadoff hitter Cam Johnson, who was 6-for-13 with three doubles and three RBIs at the Super Regionals, will be back for his senior season in center field, while infielders Eric Jones, Alec Acosta and Max Bazin and outfielder Justin Lebek also return after playing every day. Returning pitchers Evan Roberts, Allen Barry, Josh Hudson, Austin Leonard and Josh Smutzer earned significant experience on the postseason stage.

“That’s invaluable,” said O’Linger. “It’s absolutely invaluable. To play in atmospheres and to play in big games like that, you can’t really put it down on paper how much it actually means and how much you build off something like that.”


Same ‘goofballs’ going forward
Cooke sees this year’s run, as it pertains to the future, as notable for what can happen when everyone does their part, day by day, pitch by pitch, but he’s realistic that it’s not going to be easy to replicate.

He’s already heard from many who are ready to raise the bar in terms of next year’s expectations and making the NCAA Tournament a regular occurrence, and he’s tapping the brakes. He said the key to making a similar run is sticking to what got the Wildcats there this time. In his eyes, it has to be a similar approach.

“Where we have to watch them is to make sure they’re not suddenly pushing too hard, trying to swing harder than they need,” he said. “They have to be themselves and let it go. They have to look back — I’ve said this a number of times — we weren’t 52-4 going into the Regional. ... They just have to make sure they don’t put more heat on them in a high-leverage situation than already exists. They’ve got to continue to say and be the kind of goofballs they were through this. They’ve got to continue to be that when it’s an early-season non-conference series.”

The Wildcats will open the 2018 season at home against Lafayette on Feb. 16. Cooke already has a goal in mind for that day.

“We want to (throw) strike one,” he said.


One of a kind
O’Linger exited the clubhouse Sunday wearing a fresh Davidson baseball cap — his sweat-stained one is now in storage — and made his way to Wilson, the central North Carolina town, not Davidson’s home field. He planned on at least trimming his beard within a day or two, but has been urged to keep it.

He’ll spend the summer with the Wilson Tobs of the Coastal Plain League, coaching alongside Wildcats assistant coach Aaron Lynch before heading to pharmacy school at the University of Florida in the fall. He’s not rated as a pro prospect, but O’Linger said he’d listen if his name was called during the MLB draft this week.

O’Linger, below, finished his senior season 9-3 with a 3.16 ERA in 116.2 innings. He threw 1,369 pitches. His postseason included 28.2 innings, 502 pitches, three wins and one save in a 16-day span. After what turned out to be the final pitch of his career Friday in College Station, he left to a standing ovation from the opposing crowd at one of college baseball’s top stadiums. He’s one of three visiting players to ever receive that nod of respect at Blue Bell Park.

“He’s a legend in all of our eyes,” said Robertson. “To see him run out there so many times inspired us. We’ll see that statue come up.”

For the record, O’Linger said he was ready to go in relief if the Super Regionals extended to Sunday. Josh Hudson was slated to start.

“I was definitely going to be listed as available,” O’Linger said with a smile. “I would’ve made sure of it.”

O’Linger’s first name comes from “The Hobbit,” in which Durin is the name of seven kings of the dwarves. The first one is “Durin the Deathless,” which seems to fit given his now-legendary status.

“That’s just extra material,” he said. “The way I think about it is I’ve never met another Durin, and I probably never will. I’m a unique person, so it fits me.”

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