"And it just uplifted me," the 56-yeard-old Gottlieb remembered. "I'm trying to figure out what the hell do we do. How do we fight this? And here, out of the blue, this guy calls and he's just filling me up with optimism. I just can't tell you how much that meant at the exact moment it was needed the most."
Waiting for an answer
The team remained in limbo for five months as Loeschke formed a task force to review the recommendations. The season began in February, with many hoping the president would save the program.
On March 8, the Tigers were called to a meeting. Fratantuono rushed over from class, entering just as Loeschke said, "I'm sorry." After she had reviewed all the proposals, she was still cutting baseball and soccer.
The Tigers were scheduled to play Delaware later in the day. If Towson didn't want them, they agreed, the planers didn't want to represent the university. So they applied black duct tape over the name on their jerseys.
"When we blacked out the Towson, we said we're going to play for ourselves," Fitzgerald recalled. "That was a huge team camaraderie thing."
The Tigers led most of the game, only to lose in extra innings.
"I'll never forget that," Fratantuono said. "Walking up to the locker room, I literally felt everything was drained from me, physically, emotionally, mentally."
What they did not count on is that the story would become an embarrassment to the university. O'Malley and Comptroller Peter Franchot questioned Loeschke's handling of the situation. At the end of March, O'Malley released his revised budget, with $300,000 to keep the baseball program operating and $2 million to help build a softball field to address Title IX issues.
'We just got saved!'
Fratantuono was in the Atlanta airport, on his way back from Coastal Carolina University, where he planned to transfer. He noticed a frenzy of tweets. "Dude where are you?" said third baseman Zach Fisher when he called. "We just got saved!"
They no longer had to worry about finding new schools or covering their uniforms in black tape. They could just play the game.
"It was kind of like, well, now people want us," Fratantuono said. "When we were cut, it felt like nobody wanted us here. But now we're a baseball team that represents a university."
They had performed unevenly during a 25-28 regular season but entered the CAA tournament confident because they had played well against top seeds UNC-Wilmington and William & Mary. Gottlieb and the players adopted a "Why not?" outlook.
The Tigers opened with a narrow win over Northeastern behind senior starter Mike Volpe. From there, everyone joined the party. Fisher hit three in two games. Butler drove in six runs in the tournament. After only two days rest, Volpe threw 139 pitches as he went all nine innings in the clinching game against William & Mary.
Ecstasy engulfed the players as they piled on the field after a game-ending double play. Parents embraced in the stands. A day earlier, they had tried to give Gottlieb a signed team portrait and bat to thank him for his selflessness and good humor through the ordeal. But assistant coaches told them to hold off. They didn't want anyone putting a period on the season.
As the coach walked to a post-game interview with designated hitter Kurt Wertz, Wertz turned to him and said "This is the greatest moment of my life."
It was a sentiment repeated by several players Wednesday as they practiced at Towson's Schuerholz Park before departing to North Carolina. They badly want to keep winning in NCAA play.
But they know they have already authored quite a story.
"It's a bonus," Gottlieb said of the games to come. "House money. I mean, we have won, whether it's for the history books or in the perception of the public. We've won."