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Salisbury baseball enjoying limelight as national champion for first time in school history

Members of Salisbury celebrate a win against St. Thomas during the Division III Men’s Baseball Championship held at Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium on June 8, 2021 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Photo by Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
Members of Salisbury celebrate a win against St. Thomas during the Division III Men’s Baseball Championship held at Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium on June 8, 2021 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (Photo by Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images) (Jack Dempsey/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

In the aftermath of the Salisbury baseball team’s first national championship, junior pitcher Corey Burton discovered about 200 text messages on his phone that took him more than 30 minutes to address and answer. Similarly, sophomore left fielder Kavi Caster said his accounts on various social media platforms were “blowing up.”

And after returning Wednesday from Veterans Memorial Stadium in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the duo absorbed some teasing from the people closest to them.

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“My girlfriend always messes with me and says, ‘Oh, you’re famous now,’” said Burton, a Baltimore resident and Archbishop Curley graduate. “But not yet.”

Added Caster, a Crofton resident and South River graduate: “My girlfriend treats me like that, too, but other than that, I don’t feel like a celebrity just yet.”

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But since at least Tuesday, Burton, Caster and the rest of the Sea Gulls have garnered much of the spotlight after sweeping St. Thomas (Minnesota) in a best-of-three NCAA Division III College World Series. With victories of 6-1 on June 7 and 4-2 on June 8, Salisbury (34-4) capped its first appearance in the finals with its first national title and a 14-game winning streak.

“I honestly don’t think it’s really kicked in yet,” Burton said. “It might be a week, it might be two weeks, it might not be until we come back in the fall. It’s still a really good feeling right now. It means a lot.”

The Sea Gulls are no strangers to postseason success, having qualified for each of the last 21 regionals (the second-longest active streak in the nation, trailing only Cortland’s run of 28) and advancing to the College World Series in 2001, 2004, 2011, 2014 and 2015.

Morale among the players ran high as they went 21-4 through the regular season and did not drop a game en route to their 17th league tournament championship and their first Coast-to-Coast Athletic Conference title. Caster, however, said he was most encouraged when the team handled Marymount, 10-5, in its first game of the High Point Regional in North Carolina on May 27.

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Junior pitcher Corey Burton throws for Salisbury during the Division III College World Series.
Junior pitcher Corey Burton throws for Salisbury during the Division III College World Series. (Steve Frommell/Steve Frommell, d3photography.com)

“During the season, we played a lot of conference teams,” he said, noting that coronavirus pandemic restricted Salisbury to facing only five nonconference opponents in the regular season. “We didn’t play a whole lot of different teams. So I wasn’t too sure how we would stack up against others. When we took out Marymount, that’s when I had full confidence in our team of how far we could go, and we never looked back.”

Coach Troy Brohawn was impressed by the team’s ability to overcome the absences of senior starting pitcher Jimmy Adkins (who played in only 14 games before a stress fracture in his back sidelined him for the remainder of the season) and Caster (who missed eight games after testing positive for COVID-19). Brohawn cited the play of junior Scott Cameron, who replaced Caster in left field and batted .420 with 15 RBIs and 19 runs scored over 16 starts before the College World Series.

“I don’t know if he would have gotten the opportunity that he got late in the season if Kavi was healthy the entire time,” Brohawn said. “Kavi also battled a small groin injury that we debated whether to DH him or play him in left field. When Scotty stepped in when he went on the COVID break, Scotty played really well in left field and started swinging the bat. So when Kavi came back, we knew we could rest Kavi as a DH and let his groin heal up, and then when it got to the point where he could play in the outfield, we put him in the outfield for the last two or three games of the World Series, and we were able to establish Scotty as a designated hitter. So it worked out for Kavi, Scotty and most importantly the team.”

The void on the mound was filled by senior right-hander Clayton Dwyer, sophomore left-hander Jackson Balzan and junior left-hander Xavier Marmol. But in the nine tournament games the Sea Gulls played, Burton earned five wins in middle relief.

“It’s a testament to him because he’s getting in games that are decided when he’s in the game,” said Brohawn, who has taken to calling Burton “The Vulture” for his ability to swoop in and pull out victories. “He was getting into very tight games, and that’s the confidence that we have in Corey. … Five wins in nine games, that’s pretty impressive.”

Asked if being a middle reliever is a pressure-filled assignment, Burton replied, “It is, but I feel like I handle pressure very well and the whole team handles pressure well. We were down four runs in two of our four regional games [against LaGrange on May 28 and Birmingham Southern on May 30], and we were able to fight back, and that just shows how resilient we are.”

In the two wins against St. Thomas (37-10), which had been a runner-up in the College World Series in 1999 and 2000 before breaking through in 2001 and 2009, Salisbury got contributions from a wide array of sources. In the series-opening victory, junior shortstop Stephen Rice lashed four hits in five at-bats with a double and two runs scored after laboring to three hits in his three previous games, Balzan improved to 9-1 with only one run and five hits in five innings, and Dwyer earned the save with four strikeouts and only one hit in four innings.

In the title-clinching win, Caster went 2-for-4 with two RBIs, and junior first baseman Sky Rahill went 3-for-5 with a run scored. Burton got the victory with three strikeouts, four hits and one run in 4 1/3 innings, and Dwyer secured his second save in as many days.

Brohawn, who pitched for the Arizona Diamondbacks, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants and threw a scoreless ninth inning in Game 6 of the 2001 World Series to help Arizona defeat the New York Yankees, became the second coach to win a NCAA Division III crown and an MLB World Series, joining former first baseman Scott Brosius, who did the same with Linfield in 2013 and New York from 1998-2000. But he deferred credit to the players.

“It’s meaningful to be on a shortlist like that, especially since are two totally different championships,” he said. “As a player, you could somewhat determine an outcome by your play sometimes. I had no say in any of this. These guys played, these guys pitched, these guys fielded. The only thing that I and our coaching staff try to do is to put each player in a great situation to succeed with their skill set. We feel like if we put guys in situations where they can succeed based on what they do best, we can live with the results.”

Burton disputed his coach’s assertion, saying, “He was a huge part of this team. He busts his rear end every day at practice as we do for him. For him to prepare us for this, it was awesome, and we’re so happy for him and [associate head] coach [Ron] Siers and all of the coaches. They prepared us for this moment.”

As many as seven seniors may not return, and Brohawn already knows that the team will have to replace center fielder Justin Meekins (the school’s all-time leader in runs scored with 199 and No. 6 hitter with 227 career hits) and Dwyer (tied for sixth in the country this spring in wins with 10 and sixth in total strikeouts with 107). But Brohawn said he can rely on the program’s veterans to emphasize continuing its legacy of consistency.

“The upperclassmen that are leaving, they carried the burden each year of, how do you want to be remembered?” he said. “We mentioned that to the seniors quite often — not to put pressure on them, but to hold them accountable to, when you come back for reunions, do you want to be that class that doesn’t go to the regionals? So the culture around here is excellent, and the upperclassmen that are usually homegrown for three or four years try to continue that tradition and lead the way each and every year.”

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As thrilling as collecting a NCAA title is, it can also heighten the expectations of replicating that accomplishment next season. And opponents will be fully aware — and perhaps amped — about the opportunity to take down the 2021 national champion.

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Caster said he and his teammates welcome that challenge.

“I want everybody’s best effort against us,” he said. “That’s only going to make us a better team.”

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