CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Asked which he would have thought less likely in March -- that Towson would still have a baseball program after the season or that this season would still be going on in June -- Tigers coach Mike Gottlieb didn't hesitate with his answer.
"This was less likely," he said after Towson beat Florida Atlantic, 7-2, on Friday in the first game of the Chapel Hill NCAA baseball tournament regional. "Throughout the month of March, after we were told there would be no baseball in the future, the kids played hard. They never played like they didn't care, and now we're here and we're glad we got a victory today."
Mike Volpe, one of the few pitchers Gottlieb could count on from a staff with an overall ERA over 5.00 in the regular season, held the Owls to four hits and an unearned run over seven innings, and Towson's potent offense did the rest with five runs in the sixth inning that broke open a 1-0 game.
A decision to eliminate the Towson program in a cost-cutting move was reversed in late March, but the Tigers were still an average team until four consecutive wins in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament secured the league's automatic NCAA tournament bid — the school's first since 1991.
"I'm thrilled our kids have a future. I'm thrilled I'm not looking for a job. I'm thrilled personally that we are able to be back in this environment," Gottlieb said. "It was a long time without getting here."
The Tigers (30-28) will play North Carolina, the tournament's top seed, on Saturday at 6 p.m. The Tar Heels beat Canisius on Friday, 6-3. Brandon Gonnella (4-4, 5.22 ERA) will start for Towson.
"Just from our dugout looking into their dugout, they seem to have a really good team chemistry, a cohesive, us-against-the-world [mentality], and sometimes those things are way bigger than having high draft picks or Perfect Game All-Americans," Florida Atlantic coach John McCormack said.
Towson broke up a 1-0 pitching duel with five runs and six hits in the sixth.
The first four batters of the inning -- Pat Fitzgerald (single), Kurt Wertz (double), Peter Bowles (single) and Dominic Fratantuono (double) -- reached base against Florida Atlantic ace Jeremy Strawn, chasing him from the game.
Owls reliever Kevin Alexander recorded an out before catcher Andrew Parker broke the game open with his 11th home run of the season, a three-run shot that made it 6-0.
Brendan Butler's fifth home run, a solo shot off the scoreboard in the eighth inning, gave Towson its seventh run.
In the fourth inning, Towson scored first with a hit, a hit batter and three stolen bases. Wertz led off with a sharp single up the middle, and the Tigers' only All-CAA first-team selection stole second as clean-up man Bowles struck out.
Strawn then hit Fratantuono to put two runners on base, and Wertz went to third on Butler's flyout to right-center field to set up an unusual play. Fratantuono broke for second, and as soon as catcher Levi Meyer threw toward second base, Wertz bolted for the plate.
McCormack anticipated the move and called for second baseman Brendon Sanger to cut the throw, but Sanger dropped the ball as he tried to make the return throw to home plate. The play was ruled a double steal.
Florida Atlantic (39-21) scored both of its runs in the eighth, taking advantage of an error from the Tigers, but the Owls squandered what could have been a bigger inning.
Parker, the CAA Defensive Player of the Year, picked an Owls runner off first base with the bases loaded and no outs. He also threw out a runner attempting to steal second base earlier in the game.