5:32 PM EDT, May 26, 2013
For a team that was on life support just two months ago, Towson University's baseball team sure shows a lot of life.
How great is the story the Tigers are writing this spring?
In March they were told by school president Maravene Loeschke that the program was being dropped for budget and Title IX compliance reasons, only to have it saved when the state stepped into the huge PR disaster with an infusion of cash.
Now here they are going to the NCAA tournament after winning their first ever Colonial Athletic Association championship Saturday with a 5-2 win over William & Mary in Harrisonburg, Va.
The whole thing reads like a Hollywood script: once-doomed team, now a gritty No. 4 seed in the league tournament, goes undefeated in four pressurized games to make it to the Big Dance for the first time since 1991.
"I had all my hair back then and it was all brown," Tigers coach Mike Gottlieb said with a laugh Sunday. "And I didn't have to wake up at night to go to the bathroom."
Gottlieb is 56 now, a cheerful transplanted New Yorker who's been the Tigers' coach since 1988. He's probably experienced more than his share of ups and downs with the program.
But that March weekend after Loeschke made her bombshell announcement that Towson was dropping baseball and soccer felt like the worst gut punch Gottlieb and his team had ever taken.
That Friday, the Tigers dropped a 3-2 game in 10 innings to Delaware at Towson's John Schuerholz Park, and the sense of grief was palpable.
"At the end of the game," Gottlieb recalled, "I take the kids to the locker room and every ounce of energy is drained from them. It was like a funeral home. That was painful to watch. At that point in time, I didn't know what to say to them. I couldn't help them."
Then came the surprise April announcement that Gov. Martin O'Malley was including an additional $300,000 in his 2014 budget to save baseball.
Gottlieb likened it at the time to the Death Row inmate who gets a last-minute reprieve from the governor. But state lawmakers quickly stepped in and agreed to send money to the University System of Maryland instead, to be used as matching funds by the baseball and soccer programs.
No matter — Towson baseball was saved. And the Tigers made the most of their new life.
"They certainly didn't show any quit," Gottlieb said. "They're a unique bunch."
The modest Gottlieb downplays his own role as a steadying influence or a motivator for his players back when the team's future looked bleak.
The Tigers definitely didn't hear any fiery speeches that would make anyone forget Knute Rockne or Vince Lombardi or anyone else who could peel paint off the locker room walls and send a team charging out the door in full froth.
"I can't tell you I ever said anything that could go down in the history book of great coaching quotes," he said. "Heck, I don't even remember what I said. Nothing that'll ever end up on my tombstone, that's for sure."
But here the Tigers are anyway, 29-28 and CAA champs, ready to see how long this wonderful ride lasts.
They got a great game from senior right-hander Mike Volpe in the final win against William & Mary. Pitching on just two days rest, Volpe gave up seven hits and two runs. He walked two and struck out six and didn't allow a hit after the sixth inning, retiring 11 of the last 12 hitters he faced.
"The last time someone pitched on two days rest," Gottlieb crowed, "it was Sandy Koufax in Game 7 of the 1965 World Series!"
Junior DH Kurt Wertz also came up big, going 2-for-4 with a homer and double and three RBIs, batting .412 for the tournament with six ribbies. And third baseman Zach Fisher was named the tournament's MVP, batting .476 with a double, three home runs and 10 RBIs.
When it was over, when the Tigers had finally untangled themselves from a jubilant scrum on the pitching mound and posed joyfully for team photos with the championship trophy, it was Wertz who offered the perfect coda for this crazy season.
"This," he told his coach, "is the best moment of my life."
"When I hear [that], it makes it all worthwhile," Gottlieb said.
Now the Tigers will gather Monday afternoon at the Charles Village Pub in Towson to hear who they'll play in the first round of the 64-team NCAA tournament.
The great ride isn't over yet. And no one wants it to end.
Listen to Kevin Cowherd Tuesdays at 7:20 a.m. on 105.7 The Fan's "The Norris and Davis Show."
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