California proves anything is possible
After its program was nearly eliminated, Bears relish trip to CWS
OMAHA, Neb. -- It’s been quite a ride for the California baseball team during the last year.
Due to university budget cutbacks, the school’s athletics department announced in September the baseball program was set to be eliminated following the 2011 season. The newly recruited freshmen had not even set foot on the field for an official fall practice session before the team heard the heart-wrenching news.
“It was very hard,” shortstop Marcus Semien said. “I’m a junior now, so my main concern was keeping the young guys together that had just gotten here. They had just left home for the first time in their lives to come to college.”
Suddenly players had to think about their futures, and possibly transferring to different schools, at the same time they were trying to make the most of their last season at Cal – a program rich in tradition that has been in existence since 1892.
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“We told them that we still had this season to do big things, and there were a lot of people behind us fundraising that it was very possible for the program to be saved,” Semien said. “We told them if you stay here and continue playing the game and get better as ballplayers, then everything else will take care of itself and good things will happen.”
The Bears got off to a hot start in the regular season, while administrators and coaches took care of the fundraising efforts. Then on April 8, as the team was waiting to play a Pac-10 series at Arizona, the Bears got word the program had raised enough money -- $9.6 million – to be reinstated for the foreseeable future.
“When we got the opportunity to continue this program, we knew for ourselves and everybody who put in the fundraising efforts that we could do some big things this year,” Semien said.
But keeping up the ‘there is no tomorrow’ approach following reinstatement was not as easy as it looked.
After starting the year with a 24-9 record, the Bears headed to No. 9 Arizona State for a three-game series. Cal opened with a 17-inning loss to the Sun Devils that started a four-game losing stretch. Beginning with the extra-inning defeat, the Bears went 7-11 to end the regular season, not exactly looking like they would be a threat in the postseason.
“The way we finished up the regular season wasn’t the way we wanted to … we really stumbled home,” junior pitcher Matt Flemer said. “We felt like we weren’t playing our best ball at the time. The good thing about making a regional is that all the stuff you did beforehand doesn’t really matter. We took that mentality into the regional.”
Cal had done enough throughout the season to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, and headed to Rice as the No. 3 seed in the Houston Regional. With early exits in their last two NCAA Regional appearances, and a 6-4 loss to Baylor to open regional play, it looked like Cal may not take full advantage of its postseason opportunity. But then something clicked for the Bears, and that ‘backs-against-the-wall,’ ‘never-say-die’ attitude that the team was so comfortable with returned. Cal defeated Alcorn State, Rice and Baylor, setting up a second regional championship game against the Bears.
“I think it was a blessing in disguise, because we thought, ‘If we lose, we’re done,’” Flemer said. “This entire storybook season is done. We had been on the chopping block before, and here we are again in a different circumstance. I think that helped us and turned us around and started motivating us again.”
“(We talked about) how we were playing when our backs were against the wall,” Semien said. “We were playing with a chip on our shoulder … we were playing like there was no tomorrow and we were winning games that way. When we had a little losing streak, we realized we had to come back and play carefree baseball.”
An incredible come-from-behind 9-8 win against Baylor capped off the regional, highlighted by a four-run, ninth-inning rally to send the program to its first Super Regional.
“I can’t even remember the celebration,” Flemer said. “I just remember running out of the field. We’ve probably watched the video about 800 times as a group … it never gets old. (Outfielder) Danny Oh looked at me, and said, ‘I just want to cry right now, I’m so happy.’”
California hosted the Santa Clara Super Regional against Dallas Baptist with a renewed motivation.
“The first game of the Super [Regional] we saw all our fans and they were clapping for us as we went to go take batting practice,” Flemer said. “We’d never seen anyone at batting practice before. That was something that gave everybody goose bumps, so we thought, ‘Okay, let’s go do this thing.’”
|California's Road to Omaha|
|Baylor 6, Cal 4||Box | Recap|
|Cal 10, Alcorn St. 6||Box | Recap|
|Cal 6, Rice 3||Box | Recap|
|Cal 8, Baylor 0||Box | Recap|
|Cal 9, Baylor 8||Box | Recap | Video|
|Cal 7, Dallas Baptist 0||Box | Recap | Video|
|Cal 6, Dallas Baptist 2||Box | Recap | Video|
Again riding the roller coaster of emotion, the Bears defeated DBU 7-0 and 6-2 to secure their first trip to Omaha since 1992.
“It was one of things like, ‘Wow, we really pulled it off,’” Flemer said. “Just like the boosters did with all of their hard-earned money. We can’t repay all of those boosters in dollar figures, but we could pay them back by playing the best we could in regionals. I think winning that game in the bottom of the ninth against Baylor and winning our Super Regional at home is our way of saying thank you.”
Cal head coach Dave Esquer was a shortstop on Stanford’s 1987 national championship team, and is now making College World Series memories as the Bears’ mentor.
“To be here in the inaugural year of the new stadium – talk about a dream come true – it’s more than that for us,” Esquer said. “It’s more special. To see our kids’ faces when we got off the plane -- that was priceless.”
As the team neared the stadium on the bus on Wednesday, Esquer asked his players to close their eyes and think about the emotional journey they had been through during the past year, recounting the events of the season.
“The bus driver pulled up and we got there and I said, ‘When you make a decision to commit to each other and work hard and fulfill all those promises about having the best season, and actually have the toughness to go through the off-the-field stuff, there’s a good chance that you can realize your dreams and get to the destination you’ve been shooting for the whole year,” Esquer said. “The destination is here.’”
Esquer told the team to open their eyes. The bus was parked in front of the new TD Ameritrade Park.
The Golden Bears’ emotions have run the gamut from the utter disappointment of their program ending to the elation of clinching their first trip to the College World Series in nearly two decades.
“We knew we had the pieces to pull off something special,” Flemer said. “We knew we had the pieces to do what we’re doing. I think that’s really what kept us in check. We couldn’t change any of the outside stuff … the only thing we change was what we did inside the foul lines. All 35 guys understood that.”
“Our love for the game of baseball kept us together,” Semien said. “We’re a very close group of guys and have one common goal and that’s to win baseball games, make it to Omaha and win the national championship.”