uYeah, there have been times over the past 11 years that Greg Appleton wondered if his Columbus State baseball program had hit a plateau.
Five years into his tenure, Appleton had a national championship trophy. The next five years produced two more trips to the Division II World Series, 2004 and ‘07, the latter resulting in a runner-up finish, plus another NCAA regional appearance.
The program had been successful before under Charles Ragsdale and Derek Mann with four trips to the World Series. So it seemed more winning under Appleton would be inevitable.
Indeed, the winning has continued. Since that 2007 World Series appearance, the Cougars have been one of the most consistent programs in Division II. Two Peach Belt Conference regular season championships (2008 and ‘16), two Peach Belt tournament championships (2010 and ‘16) and five regional tournament appearances (2008, ‘10, ‘11, ‘14 and ‘16).
So sure, as much as Appleton goes out of his way to give his players and coaches credit, there’s a measure of personal satisfaction in getting back to the World Series. The Cougars play Mercyhurst Sunday night at 7.
“You get to a point where you go, ‘Well, are we going to go back? Is this going to be it? Are we just going to have some good teams,” Appleton said. “It’s nice. It feels nice to win that regional and know you’re going back. I was very proud of the guys and the coaches. But it’s a feeling of satisfaction to know that you’ve still got it in you.”
Appleton isn’t sure how the players will react to playing in the World Series. But he feels good about the team’s makeup.
“It’s a pretty resilient bunch. You just don’t know if just getting here was what they wanted to do, or if these guys are determined to do more. That’s to be determined. They’ve been a pretty determined bunch.”
Appleton has probably had more explosive lineups and deeper pitching staffs. This team certainly has talent. Austin Pharr has 17 home runs and a .424 on-base percentage. Frank Wager has 15 home runs. Mason McClellan, Robert Brooks and Grant Berry each have 10 home runs. Lefties Kolton Ingram and Perez Knowles are the top two starters. Tyler Cadenhead and T.J. Clark give the Cougars quality depth in the rotation.
But their success goes beyond anything measurable on the stat sheet.
“This team, the best thing they do is find a way to win,” Appleton said. “Not to say that we don’t have good players or they’re not talented, but whatever we need to do to try to find a way to win, we do. If we’ve got to pitch good or if we’ve got to make a play defensively or if we have to hit a home run, it just seems like we do it. That’s kind of been the characteristic of this team all year long, finding a way to win.”
Case in point, the Southeast Regional tournament. Knowles threw 153 pitches in a complete game win over North Greenville. But a loss to Belmont Abbey forced a do-or-die game against North Greenville with their No. 4 starter, T. J. Clark. Clark struck out 10 and allowed only four hits in seven innings.
“He threw the game of his life,” Appleton said. “That put us into the championship game, and we throw 12 innings of shut out ball (a 5-0 win over Belmont Abbey). That forced the last game. Then we hit. We didn’t have any pitching but we put up 10 runs. That’s kind of the way the team operates.”
Here’s something refreshing about Division II college baseball. Major league baseball has become a chess match of statisticians. Launch angles and exit velocities. Multiple pitching changes within an inning. Starters laboring to get through five innings. And now the Tampa Bay Rays have started reliever Sergio Romo on back to back days and pulled him after two innings.
Columbus State plays just good ol’ fashioned baseball, where their sole focus is on scoring one more run than the opposition.
“We’re not all sitting around talking about launch angle and exit velocity,” Appleton said. “We don’t have all the tools that they have. We still call that hitting the ball in the air and hitting the ball on the ground. And, hey, he hit that ball hard. It hasn’t changed at all. It’s about throwing strikes and hitting home runs.”
The Cougars are seeded No. 2 overall and first in their bracket. But their reward for that is facing Mercyhurst pitcher Chris Vallimont, who’s one of the top pitchers in college baseball on any level. Vallimont is 6-5, 235 pounds with a fastball in the mid ‘90s and a devastating changeup. In 74⅓ innings, he has nearly two and a half times more strikeouts (136) than walks and hits (57) combined. Opponents have a .134 batting average against him. It’s an especially tough matchup because the Cougars strike out a lot.
“It wasn’t the greatest draw in the world,” Appleton said with a laugh.
But at least the Cougars are still playing. He’ll take that.