ETSU players applaud the Bucs' NCAA draw on Monday.
They sat together in anticipation, watching the television screen on the wall at Poor Richard’s.
And when East Tennessee State was officially announced as a participant in this year’s NCAA baseball tournament, the Bucs’ players and the team’s supporters let out a collective cheer.
ETSU will face No. 2 Vanderbilt in a regional game at Nashville on Friday at 7 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPNU.
“It’s gonna be a great experience,” ETSU senior third baseman Alex Reynolds said. “My emotions are so high right now. I’m looking forward to seeing what this club can do.”
The Bucs earned their spot in the 64-team NCAA field by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament with a 7-2 victory over Kennesaw State on Sunday.
“I’m so proud of our guys,” said ETSU coach Tony Skole, whose team will take a 36-22 record into the NCAA tournament. “We’ve waited for this day a long time.”
It will be ETSU’s third regional appearance, its first since 1981. Illinois and Georgia Tech are the other two teams in the Vanderbilt Regional. The four teams will compete in a double-elimination tournament with the winner moving on to the Super Regional.
“It’s a great feeling just to be here with this group of guys,” ETSU’s senior third baseman Reynolds said. “I can’t express the way I feel about this club. We really do have each other’s backs. We’ve been doing that all season long.”
The Bucs won four games in the A-Sun tournament, including the first three in their last at-bat. That left them in the winner-take-all final against Kennesaw State.
ETSU ace Kerry Doane, who had worked nine innings in the tournament opener, was pitching on three days rest. Shortly before the game, Skole was informed by trainer Brian Johnston that Doane might have strep throat.
“We weren’t even sure he could go,” Skole said.
Doane decided to give it a shot, not knowing how long he would be able to last.
“At the start of the game, it was difficult to get as pumped up as I wanted to be because my body was drained a little bit,” Doane said. “I think it helped me out. I wasn’t over-adrenalized. I wasn’t going out there trying to hump it. I was just trying to throw strikes.”
When the championship-clinching game was over, Doane had pitched another nine innings in a gutsy performance that might be talked about for years to come.
“I was a little surprised,” Doane said. “I just threw nine innings before that not too long ago. I came out and was like ‘I’m gonna go until I can’t go.’ ”
That moment never came as Doane kept on pitching until the final out. He had his nation-leading 12th complete game of the season and improved to 13-1.
And his teammates didn’t even know he was sick.
“I was trying to talk to him during the game and he wasn’t talking much,” Bucs center fielder Andrew Green said. “I just figured he was focusing. That kid’s a bulldog. He really deserves all the success he has.”
Doane, the A-Sun’s pitcher of the year and the tournament’s MVP, says he’ll be fine for Friday night’s NCAA opener.
After a long overnight bus ride from DeLand, Fla., the Bucs could have been forgiven if they were a little tired. But this was too important to worry about a little sleep.
“Two years ago we were in our clubhouse watching this with just our team, and we thought we were gonna get called and we ended being the 65th team and we weren’t called,” Skole said. “That was heartbreaking.”
This time, the Bucs took it out of the selection committee’s hands by earning the A-Sun’s automatic bid. They knew they’d be somewhere in the brackets when they were announced.
“To know it was going to happen was just tremendous excitement,” Skole said.
Vanderbilt was the No. 1 team in the country before losing in the SEC championship game to LSU. The Commodores fell to 51-9 on Sunday and lost the overall No. 1 seed to North Carolina.
“We’ve got our hands full,” Skole said. “They’re really, really strong on the mound and this is probably one of the better offensive teams they’ve had.
“We’re familiar with Nashville. We’ve played there before. They’re on a turf field as well, so there’s some familiarity there and we’re excited. I expect us to go down there and play well.”