Never give up, never surrender
After facing possible extinction, Tigers are better than ever
Even when no one believed in the Towson baseball team, they believed in themselves.
Less than three months ago, the Tigers squad was officially on the brink of extinction after Towson school president Maravene Loeschke announced the program, along with men’s soccer, would be dropped for budgetary and Title IX compliance issues on March 8.
But this weekend, after overcoming incredible adversity, the program will be competing in the NCAA tournament for the first time in more than two decades.
There had been rumors about cutting baseball as a varsity sport since October when the former athletics director recommended the action to the university’s administration, but the announcement in March made it official. Later that day, Towson began a three-game home series with Delaware and players began wearing black tape over the school name on their jerseys in protest of the decision.
Twenty-six year head coach Mike Gottlieb was crestfallen, as were his players, but he made sure to put his student-athletes’ best interest as the top priority.
“When the initial recommendation came down, I never told them what they should do,” Gottlieb said. “I said whatever you feel is best for you I will try to make that happen. If you decide to leave, I understand that perfectly.”
While transferring could have been an option after the fall semester, the roster stayed intact for the spring, but still Gottlieb was concerned about his players’ future.
“It was all about what was best for the kids and not what was best for the team,” Gottlieb said. “If a kid had an injury, we wouldn’t use him so he could save a year of eligibility.”
Other coaches -- Long Island head coach Don Maines and Fairfield head coach Bill Currier -- who had been in similar predicaments contacted Gottlieb and offered their support. Maines was at Drexel when it dropped baseball and Currier headed Vermont’s program before they were cut.
“They both reached out to me and told me what they had gone through and gave me some suggestions,” Gottlieb said. “They gave me some ideas, and [told me] what their experiences were like. It was nice they thought enough of me and our program to reach out.”
Despite the dire situation, the Tigers didn’t throw in the towel.
“The team was focused from the beginning of this problem,” Gottlieb said. “They didn’t quit. They were determined to have success this year. They are a unique group.”
“At first, it was spite motivating us,” senior catcher Andrew Parker said. “We wanted to win just because in our eyes the administration didn’t think we were good enough, and one of the reasons they wanted to cut us was competiveness. We thought we were pretty good and pretty competitive in our conference.”
Then on April 1, Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley gave the program a reprieve, infusing $300,000 into the program from the state budget. While the state legislature changed how the program would receive the funding, they made sure it would happen for at least the next two years, giving the school an opportunity to raise funds for sustainability in the future.
The Tigers were 13-13 when they got their second chance, and after taking a collective deep breath, the team continued to stay consistent. During April, Towson took Colonial Athletic Association series against the top two teams in the league – UNC Wilmington and William & Mary – en route to earning the final spot in the conference tournament as the No. 6 seed.
“I’m guessing they were relieved knowing they didn’t have to look for another school and transfer,” Gottlieb said. “They had been playing pretty good baseball until then, and it allowed them to continue without having to worry about what was supposedly inevitable.”
Towson picked the best time of the year to get their biggest wins of the season as the Tigers knocked off No. 1-seed UNC Wilmington and No. 2 William & Mary (twice) in the CAA tournament, posting a 4-0 mark in the league championship and winning the school’s first CAA title.
“When we beat UNC Wilmington in game two of the tournament -- the highest seed -- and came from behind to do it, they kids started believing they could win it and it was within their reach,” Gottlieb said. “At no time did I give any Vince Lombardi pep talks. It wasn’t necessary and I’m not sure how much it would have helped anyway. As a group, they were focused on the goal and were able to make it work.”
Knowing the program was safe for at least a couple more years also helped ease their minds and focus solely on what was happening on the field.
“It gave us a little bit of breathing room because we knew this wasn’t the last team and we didn’t have to win it all this year,” Parker said. “I think that helped us towards the end to win the tournament because we weren’t pressing to win it. We wound up just having fun and playing the way we wanted to play.”
Awarded along with the CAA title is an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament -- Towson’s first since 1991 and third in program history. All three trips have come during Gottlieb’s 26-year tenure, but the most recent will probably make the biggest impact on the program.
“Any time you go to an NCAA regional, you’re making a statement that you’re pretty good,” Gottlieb said. “Going forward, people can look at it two ways. Yes, they were going to drop the program, but they were able to overcome some adversity and go to a regional. They’re looking pretty good. Hopefully, high school kids will look at that and think about coming here even after all the adversity we faced this year.”
The Tigers (29-28) are the No. 3 seed in the NCAA Chapel Hill Regional. They will face No. 2 seed Florida Atlantic on Friday. No. 1 national seed North Carolina and No. 4 seed Columbia will meet in the other regional contest.
“A lot of us are ready for the experience,” Parker said. “Whenever you think about teams that have been to the tournament, you think those are good schools -- it’s nice to be able to play against them finally. Having faced this adversity can only help us.”
Regardless of what happens this weekend, the Tigers have made memories that have bonded them for a lifetime.
“I think it’s going to be nice to have a banner up on the fence [at John B. Schuerholz Park] for being in this NCAA regional and winning the CAA tournament,” Parker said. “We don’t have any of that around our field right now and whenever we go somewhere else the other schools have that. I think coming back to watch games here and seeing that it says 2013 CAA champions and NCAA regional participant -- it’s going to be nice for everyone remember we did well this year.”