Mixed results for Catamount baseball

High expectations sprung long before winter left Cullowhee, as preseason polls had the Catamount baseball team ranked 31st nationally.

The Cats dazzled right out of the gate, traveling to Starkville to face the Mississippi State Bulldogs, ranked second in the country. The Cats pulled out a Valentine’s Day heartbreaker by the final score of 3-2, and the buzz around the team ramped up a little more.

They would eventually drop the three-game series to the Bulldogs, but it seemed the momentum from opening day catapulted the sluggers of Cullowhee to another level.

The Cats went on a tear following the series, rattling off seven straight wins, including two victories on the road against Washington State and a home blowout of #15 Clemson.

All of a sudden, the Cats were sitting pretty with an 8-2 record that exceeded all of the previous expectations. They seemed primed and ready to break into the Top 25.

That is, until an unexpected cold spell shivered through the team in Georgia.

The team lost all three of their games in the University of Georgia Tournament in Athens, including a closing match against the hosting Georgia Bulldogs. Losses to Georgia Tech and Kennesaw State rounded off the trip, and there was little doubt that the Cats were ready to return to friendlier confines.

The five-game losing streak was arguably the most adversity the team would face during the regular season. How they bounced back from it could certainly be considered a defining moment.

The Cats won 15 of their next 17 games, including a 12-game stretch that was nothing short of incredible.

Strong play continued through the second half of the season, especially in Cullowhee, where the Cats finished with a 23-3 record.

The lasting memories from Childress Field this season, however, came late. One of the highlights, of course, was the three-game sweep of archrival Appalachian State. The most important, however, came down to the very end of the season.

The Cats were once again neck-and-neck with the Davidson Wildcats, a bitter foe of Western Carolina for the past several years. This time, the Southern Conference regular season title was on the line.

Three games. Winner takes all. Western took all three.

When the dust settled, fans marveled at a rainbow that touched down right on the field. Pot of gold jokes aside, something magical seemed to be happening.

Unfortunately, there was no way to bottle up the magic of Hennon Stadium.

The Cats strolled into Charleston, S.C. with a 20-6 conference record, a high amount of confidence, and a chance to close out the conference for good and seal up a spot in the NCAA Regionals.

Bad luck struck, however, in the results of the play-in games.

As the first seed in the tournament, Western was scheduled to play the winner of the game between the eighth and ninth seeds. Furman squeaked by UNC-Greensboro to get in, which was hardly good news for the Cats.

The Paladins were the only team to win a series in Cullowhee this season, taking two of three in mid-April. Considering those two losses accounted for a third of the Cats conference defeats, it is fair to say Furman matched up well.

Now they only needed to win one game to ruin everything the Cats had been striving for.

After falling behind 3-0, the Cats tried to stage a late-game comeback. They fell a run short.

To make matters worse, their elimination game opponent the next day would be the fourth-seed Georgia Southern Eagles, the only other conference team to win a series against the Catamounts this year.

With the previous day’s results possibly still looming in their minds, the Cats struggled against the Eagles, losing the game 8-4.

Georgia Southern went on to win the tournament, which qualified them for the 64-team NCAA bracket. Furman also made a deep run before the Eagles knocked them off.

With that being said, the high expectations of the preseason come back to mind. Most people expected for the Cats to win the Southern Conference. Losing in the tournament was not a part of the plan.

In the end, however, what this team accomplished far outweighs what they didn’t.

With an overall record of 37-18, the team was on fire for most of the season and didn’t back down to anyone.

Winning their second straight regular season conference championship is no small feat, either. It shows a consistency of play that only the best teams in the country exhibit. The hard work certainly paid off, as Western landed around 52nd in RPI rankings.

Individually, the team had seven players land on various spots of the All-Southern Conference team. Starting pitcher Jordan Smith, catcher Adam Martin and first baseman Jacob Hoyle all received first team honors on both the coaches and media lists. Both lists selected pitcher Jeremy Null for second team honors. On the coaches list, second baseman Bradley Strong earned first team honors and pitcher Bryan Sammons made the all-freshman team. The media selected relief pitcher Tyler Powell for second team honors.

Nationally, the team received one more thing to celebrate, as Bradley Strong earned third team All-American honors.

The poor performance in the tournament was certainly a setback. There is no doubt that the eight seniors on the team did not want for things to end the way they did.

However, two games shouldn’t define a season. The Cats reached their high expectations, exceeding a few in the process. They should hold their heads high and be praised for what they have accomplished.

And with any luck, the underclassmen on the team will use the sting of this year’s tournament defeat to fuel next year’s fire.