The Columbus State Cougars baseball team has had a roller coaster ride of a season. They came out of the gates hot before hitting a bit of a lull in midseason. Riding a 15-game winning streak, CSU has shot from the unranked to inside the Top 10, looking to lock up the Peach Belt Conference regular season title this weekend.
Head coach Greg Appleton headed into his 19th season at the helms of the Cougars as the winningest coach in the program’s history. He is also one of the winningest coaches in DII history as his Top 20 all-time winning percentage includes bringing CSU their lone National Championship in 2002. This season, he and his Cougars entered the year with a newly renovated home, as Burger King Stadium was constructed around Ragsdale Field.
“It was exciting because we were practicing in the fall while they were building,” Appleton said. “We saw it going up brick by brick, seat by seat. We’re so appreciative that we have it. I’m so glad that we are having a good year with the new stadium, they kind of go hand in hand.”
The stadium wasn't the only thing that was new this coming season. While Appleton was confident in his familiar, big bats, his rotation and bullpen were in large part huge question marks. Starters Albert Harless and Brandon Koehler were transfers and returning junior Caleb Kutsche had made nine career starts heading into the season.
“We have guys with talent,” Appleton said of his staff. “It was such an unproven group. All three of the conference starters are new, we didn’t have a closer coming in, and still don’t have a set closer. The roles were so undefined that we went into the season figuring out who was going to do what. We have some guys with good arms and good stuff, the biggest thing we have to do is continue to get ahead of hitters.”
The Cougars jumped out to a quick start, taking two series from nationally ranked teams early on in the year. First they took two of three from then-No. 20 ranked Lynn at home, before taking two of three from then-No. 7 North Georgia in Dahlonega.
Sitting at 20-4 and in the Top 25, they would run into a rough patch in mid-March. CSU dropped two of three to then-No. 25 Lander and would then get swept by Flagler, seeing this high-octane offense get outscored 20-4 in the three-game set.
“I don’t really know if we made a specific adjustment, but it was more of a wake-up call for us,” Appleton said. “We got beat by Lander two out of three. We didn’t necessarily play badly, we just got outplayed. Then we went down to Flagler the next weekend and got beat three times and we couldn’t do anything right. If we wanted this season to be what we wanted it to be, we needed to get going. I told them we had 18 games left and this is going to determine what kind of team we are. They took the bull by the horns and wanted to make this a great season and they have.”
The Cougars certainly got going. They haven’t lost a game since.
Slowly but surely, this offense became stronger and stronger. They became the comeback kids, making walk off victories common place. A huge three-game set against Augusta for control of the PBC saw what has become the Cougars 2016 trademark. The second game of the series would see them bust open a 2-2 in the top of the ninth by scoring five runs for the all important victory.
“It’s really amazing,” Appleton said of his team’s resiliency. “I think we have eight or nine wins that way. The big thing is that it hasn’t been one or two guys, we’ve had five, six guys come up with big hits. I think once you do it a few times, you tend to expect it. You get that confidence that you are never out of a game.”
Their offense has been led by a dynamic group of seniors. Right fielder Jackson Oliver has set the table from the leadoff hole, currently leading the entire nation in runs scored with 69. It should be seen as no coincidence that the last time Ryan Ihle and Mike McClellan were held hitless was 16 games ago. They have had at least one hit in every game of the Cougars current 15-game winning streak. McClellan — who is batting .427 with 16 home runs and 62 RBIs — was making a big push for the PBC Player of the Year.
“It’s real senior leadership,” Appleton said. “They come to work everyday. Oliver and Ihle they are great players. McClellan is an outstanding player. He’s a big power hitter that can hit for average. You just don’t find many players like that. Blake Edwards — our third baseman — has really picked up and has had a great season as well. Most of my seniors are hitters and that’s where the strength of this team has fallen.”
The Cougars have been able to work the kinks out with their pitching staff behind the play of exceptional defense. Their .972 fielding percentage is second in the PBC and seventh in the nation.
“We’re an outstanding defensive team,” Appleton said. “Our pitchers pitch to contact because they know that the guys behind them can make plays. We have a tendency to go at hitters, probably a little too much, just because our defense is so good.”
This offensive juggernaut has blasted CSU up the national rankings. The jumped from No. 14 to No. 7 in the NCBWA Poll and then six spots from No. 19 to No. 13 in the Collegiate Baseball Poll. The most recent Southeast Regional Poll saw them sitting at No. 2.
The Cougars can run as they are ranked in the Top 30 in DII in stolen bases. This team can manufacture runs as they lead the nation in runs scored and the PBC in RBI. These Cougars can hit as they are in the Top 10 in the country batting average, and this team can mash sitting in the Top 5 in total home runs with 70 bombs.
“We thought we were going to have a pretty decent offense, but the pitching was unproven and we didn’t know what to expect,” Appleton said. “The offense has carried us. I didn't expect it to be as good as it is. This is probably the best offense we’ve ever had at Columbus State since I have been here in the last 19 years.”
CSU has one series left before they head into the PBC Conference Tournament. Having not been to the College World Series since they lost the championship to perennial title threat University of Tampa in 2007, Appleton hopes that these seniors have just enough pop left in their explosive bats to get them back to Cary.
“It would mean the world to these guys,” Appleton said of making it to the DII World Series. “We have seven teams that have made it to the World Series. We have those signs up on the wall. I know these guys see them. And I know that these 14 seniors, they would love to hang a sign up there on that wall as well.”