So what has been the secret behind Columbus State's 17-game winning streak and now the Peach Belt Conference championship?
Hitting? Well, sure. Having a lineup that can hit one through nine and scoring runs by the bushel always makes a team tough to beat.
Pitching and defense? That always helps.
The candid motivational speech from Cougars coach Greg Appleton after getting swept by Flagler? Maybe some.
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Or maybe, just maybe, the answer can be found not inside the stat sheet but inside the brim of Appleton’s cap. There you will find a four-leaf clover given to him by his wife, Anne, who serves as the athletic department's photographer.
Actually, Anne has found several lucky charms in the clover patches around Burger King Stadium at Ragsdale Field. But the one tucked away in her husband’s cap was found just before the Cougars embarked on this winning streak, the longest in college baseball and now 17 games, after their 20-2 win over North Carolina-Pembroke.
Hey, are you going to argue with science?
“I don't know,” Appleton said with a chuckle. “I think I’ll stick with hitting and pitching and defense.”
But nobody’s touching the clover. You know, just to be safe. That’s baseball.
A month ago, the Cougars were 22-10 and sort of muddling along. They had lost five of seven — two games behind Lander before the sweep at Flagler. Appleton reminded them that the next few weeks would shape their season. They haven’t lost since.
“I don’t think it had anything to do with the talk,” Appleton said. “I think they just said, ‘Hey, we want to do something special.’ And they have. Hopefully, it will keep going from here because I don’t think they’re done.”
“It was pretty straight forward for us,” said second baseman Ryan Ihle. “We knew we had to finish the year strong. If you had told me we would win 17 straight, I probably wouldn’t have believed you after that series. We’re so resilient. We just keep coming back.”
The Cougars have won in variable fashions — walk-offs, blowouts. The one common denominator, though, has been hitting. They have seven players hitting .350 or higher. At the top of the list is first baseman Mike McClellan, who’s now batting .439 with 18 home runs and 68 RBI after Saturday’s performance — 3-for-5 with a home run.
The afternoon began as a homecoming celebration. Appleton invited former players and coaches back as they acknowledged the generations of success. That includes seven trips to the Division II World Series and one national championship.
Former coach Charles Ragsdale threw out the first pitch. Then the drubbing commenced.
They scored in every inning except the fifth. Pembroke made it much easier on them with five errors. But the Cougars also had nine extra base hits — five doubles and four home runs — plus four stolen bases by Justin Evans.
But this victory was far from one-dimensional. Pitcher Albert Harless was strong before the heat took its toll. He held Pembroke to four hits and one run through six innings.
Harless was helped by some splendid defense, especially by Evans, the freshman shortstop.
The postgame celebration carried all the traits of a championship. There was the dugout rush onto the infield after the final out and the ceremonial ice-water bath of Appleton just as he was about to address the team.
“The team’s so confident now,” Appleton said.
“Ultimately, we’d like to put another sign up on the wall,” said senior catcher Hunter Bowling said. “I’d like to have our senior class as one that can lead us there to the World Series, and then I’d like to bring it home.”
Maybe then Appleton will take out his clover.
Guerry Clegg: sports@ledger-enquirer, @guerryclegg