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Brian Francis | | May 24, 2014

Francis: Coaching legends meet in DIII opening round

APPLETON, Mich. -- In the past 14 years, only two coaches in NCAA Division III have won more than 75 percent of the time their squad hits the field – Cortland State’s Joe Brown and Salisbury’s Doug Fleetwood. On Friday afternoon, the Red Dragons and Sea Gulls met in the opening round of the NCAA Finals with Cortland advancing on a 4-3 victory in a game that nearly saw as many total errors (7) as base hits (8).

“It was an interesting game, to say the least,” Brown said, “at the end of the game we stopped a 20 game win-streak, a 12-game winner and we played bad…but the bottom line is we hung in there, we competed. … We’re still here and that is what it’s about at this point in the season.”

“Cortland is a good team, the do a nice job and we didn’t go out there and do what we needed to do,” Fleetwood said. “When you walk people and make a ton of errors, don’t situational hit you’re going to lose games. We got what we deserved.”

Brown and Fleetwood rank first and second among active coaches in winning percentage at .783 and .758, respectively. All-time, Brown ranks third in DIII history behind only Aurora’s Mark Walsh (.789 in 10 seasons) and Marietta’s legendary Don Schaly (.812 in 40 seasons). Fleetwood is not far behind, ranking sixth on the DIII all-time list.

“Cortland is a good team. Joe [Brown] and his people do a great job. We have a great relationship with them,” Fleetwood said after the loss, “I’m sure they’ll do great in the tournament and I’m sure Salisbury will as well.”

Since taking over in 2000, Brown has become familiar with Appleton reaching the national finals eight times (the finals were first played in Appleton in 2000). Cortland has eclipsed 30 wins each season under Brown, with the exception of the 29-win season in 2004. Brown has been a part of each of the Red Dragons NCAA Division III record 12 Finals appearances and 22 consecutive tournament berths (longest active streak in DIII), serving as the top assistant from 1993-99.

His counterpart from Salisbury, Coach Fleetwood has a nearly identical resume. Fleetwood has led the Seagulls to 14 consecutive NCAA tournaments, four trips to the National finals, nine Capital Athletic Conference titles, reached 30 wins in 13-of-14 seasons (nine consecutive). Due to bad weather in Regionals, Salisbury played on Monday night and was the final team to arrive in Appleton on just three days rest.

“The worst thing you can do in this business is make excuses when you don’t perform,” Fleetwood said. “We didn’t make the plays, we didn’t throw as well as we normally do, we didn’t make infield plays, we didn’t situationally hit. That’s okay, it happens. But, the worst thing I could ever do to my kids is to ever let anybody make an excuse for them. We got beat. They outplayed us. Give them credit.”

Fleetwood made an impact on the national scene during his rookie campaign, leading the Sea Gulls to their first national finals in 2001. Since then, they have reached three more times while Fleetwood has picked up 10 CAC Coach of the Year honors. Aside from building a juggernaut baseball program, he also serves as associate head coach (offense) of the Salisbury football team which set a school-record of 584 points in 2011. Following the 2014 season, Fleetwood announced he would retire and focus primarily on football.

“[This weekend] is not about me, it’s about these kids,” Fleetwood continued, “We just want these kids to compete and do the best they can. It’s not about me. We’ll be 10 minutes on the road when this whole thing is over and they won’t even know what my last name is.”

Prior to returning to his alma mater (Salisbury, 1972), Fleetwood won three football and one baseball state championships at Cambridge-South Dorchester (Md.) High School. He was inducted into the Maryland High School Coaches Hall of Fame in 2003.

The two greats met in the opening round of the 2014 series on Friday, each seeking the first national title for their respective school. Cortland carried 2-0 into the fourth before Salisbury loaded the bases with one out.  Mark Palumbo forced an infield fly and a weak comebacker to get out of the jam with just one run crossing the plate, keeping Cortland in front 2-1.

“I think a pivotal time in that game was bases loaded one out,” Brown stated, “to have the confidence to throw a first pitch changeup to an aggressive hitter, I think that pivoted the game for his confidence a little bit and he got the next guy out to end the rally.”

The Red Dragons responded with a pair of runs in the bottom half, regaining the momentum. Cortland manufactured five runs on just three hits, taking advantage of each baserunner, putting pressure on the defense, finding ways to move runners over and touch the plate.

“The biggest inning of the baseball game, that’s an important phase of the game” said Brown, “But it was our at bats that did it, our aggressiveness…We run to a fault sometimes, trust me I have fans back home that tell me all the time.”

Cortland began the tournament as the top fielding team (.976) in the nation, but committed five errors in the field on Friday. In the top of the ninth, an unearned run crossed the plate cutting the lead to 5-4 with runners on the corners for Salisbury before a routine fly ball to center ended the Sea Gulls' threat.

“It’s tough to talk about because we haven’t done it all year,” Brown continued, “I think the key there was Mark [Palumbo] responding with pitches. We pick each other up. I’ve been there, so I’m not getting mad. The big key is for him to respond mentally.”

Cortland’s dynamic pitching consists of a three-headed monster with third team All-American Brandon McClain (10-1, 1.50 ERA), Brandon Serio (9-2, 1.82 ERA) and Palumbo (7-0, 2.97 ERA). The trio has accounted for more than 60 percent of innings pitched for Cortland with a combined record of 26-3 and an ERA just above two.

“We had a unique decision to make regarding our starting pitcher,” Brown said. “But in our eyes, our three our interchangeable. If you start tabbing someone as your number one, that can permeate a team. We tab them as their all pitchers, who wants the ball today?”

Two of the all-time greats will continue their quests for the national title tomorrow with Salisbury taking on the loser of the Whitewater/Southern Maine game, while Cortland will await the winner.

"We’re going to come back and battle tomorrow,” Fleetwood said, “but I will not cheat my kids and talk about any excuses. They outplayed us and that’s how we go about things at Salisbury.”

“I told the new players, ‘you’re no longer a rookie. You’ve played a game now,’” Brown said about his younger players, “It’s just a simple nine inning game. Don’t make it any bigger than it is.”

Similar resumes, strategies, philosophies, love for the game, and development of the student-athlete as a whole is what has propelled these two great men atop the winningest coaches. And as incredible of an impact they make on the field, it is miniscule in comparison to lessons they’ve taught in which their students will carry well beyond the diamond.