College World Series: Stetson knocked on Omaha's door in 1988
The Stetson Hatters open up their Super Regional playoff series against North Carolina on Friday morning in Chapel Hill hoping to punch their ticket to the 2018 College World Series.
It's been 30 years since a Stetson baseball team got this deep into the NCAA baseball playoffs, and boy oh boy, does former Hatters coach Pete Dunn have a doozy of a tale about that 1988 team's trip to regionals.
"It's one of my favorite stories to tell," Dunn said earlier this week.
First, the table must be set.
Under the current playoff system (which was changed in 1999 to feature regionals, Super Regionals and College World Series), the Hatters will play a three-game series to try to qualify for a trip Omaha.
Back in '88 there were eight regionals, each featuring six teams. The winner of each regional went directly to the CWS in Omaha, Nebraska.
The 1988 Hatters went 32-23 in the regular season and featured a pitching staff led by DeLand's Tommy Hickox, who had eight wins and 14 saves out of the bullpen, and George Tsamis, who pitched in the major leagues for the Minnesota Twins in 1993. The lineup also featured Stetson legends Mike Sempeles, Kevin Weickel and Tom Riginos, all of whom batted over .300 that season.
Dunn, who was named Stetson's baseball coach in 1980 and led the team for 37 years, described the '88 team as "scrappy" and "blue collar."
Hickox agreed with his former coach's assessment.
"That's a good way to describe that team," Hickox said in a telephone interview. "That was a very special season.
"We all clicked really good and worked hard. I know going into postseason, we all felt good about the team. We always put ourselves in position to win ballgames."
After winning the Trans American Athletic Conference tournament, Stetson got an automatic bid to the double elimination regional in Tallahassee along with North Carolina State, George Mason, Tulane, Florida and Florida State.
"We lost 10-3 to Florida State in the opening round and had to fight our way through the losers' bracket," Dunn recalled. "We had to play five games in three days in that regional."
After the opening loss, the Hats scored consecutive wins against George Mason and N.C. State to earn a semifinal berth.
The Gators got a bye because they were the highest-rated team left with one loss. Stetson and FSU were scheduled to play in the morning and the winner would face Florida in the championship final that afternoon.
Much to his surprise (and delight), he found an error in the listings for the Tallahassee tournament.
"I'm looking in the Tallahassee Democrat's local sports listings and under college baseball it reads, '11 a.m. FSU vs. Stetson' and right under it is says '3 p.m., championship game, FSU vs. Florida.'"
When the team assembled for breakfast, Dunn asked for his players' attention.
"I told them, 'Guys, our plans have changed,' " Dunn said this week with a chuckle. "'We are going to go back upstairs and pack everything up and not even play the game.' They all looked at me funny."
Dunn then shared aloud the newspaper's version of the day's events.
"I read them the tournament schedule and said, 'We are already beat. We got beat the first game. Florida and Florida State are playing to go to Omaha, so we might as well get on the bus early,' " he said.
"Boy, were they were mad."
They took their anger to Dick Howser Stadium, home of the Seminoles. The lineup knocked out 11 hits, while Buddy Dryden, with relief help from Hickox, held the Seminoles batters in check. The Hats beat FSU, 7-2.
Tom Riginos, who is now the head coach of Winthrop's baseball team, played outfield for the Hatters that season and recounts the team breakfast meeting as if it happened yesterday.
"The newspaper had put Florida and Florida State in the championship game and Coach Dunn told us that before the game," he said in telephone interview.
"I remember him saying, 'Nobody is respecting Stetson. They already have FSU in the championship game.' Well, we end up beating FSU in the semifinal and got one win away from Omaha."
Stetson athletic director Jeff Altier was an assistant coach on the 1988 team.
"Those are the types of things you wish for when you are a coach, because that is tremendous motivating fodder for a team," Altier said. "We used it. We made sure to pass it around so everyone on the team could see it.
"You could see the reaction. You could see it (enrage) the entire team. It motivated them. FSU had beaten us a couple of times that year, so it was something we needed to get over that hump."
Left it all on the field
Dunn, who will turn 70 later this month, and others on that team said the Hatters left it all on the field to beat FSU.
When Stetson faced off against Florida for the regional championship, the tank was nearly on empty.
Craig Risdon, who got the win against George Mason, took the mound for the title game, but experienced arm tightness in the third inning and was relieved by Hickox. It was an uncharacteristically early appearance for the reliever.
Florida knocked Hickox around pretty good. The freshman gave up five runs in four innings.
When the smoke cleared, the Gators had pounded out 11 hits and beat down the weary Hats, 8-0.
By comparison, the 2018 version of Hatters come into their three-game Super Regional series against North Carolina on five days' rest.
Dunn's pitching corps was so depleted following that brutal run through the losers' bracket, he was forced to use Hickox in four games.
"Tommy was very durable," Dunn said. "He was our best option. He started out really well, but he eventually hit the wall and we ended up losing. Florida went to Omaha."
Hickox became the cornerstone of Stetson's pitching staff over the 1988-91 seasons.
Over those four years he made 141 appearances, recorded 48 saves and helped get the Hatters into the NCAA tournament three consecutive seasons.
Hickox, 49, now teaches at DeLand High School. He was driving to Chapel Hill on Thursday to cheer on the current Stetson squad as he shared his memories of the 1988 team.
"We were playing with a little chip on our shoulder playing FSU that day," he said. "It was a special moment."
Hickox grew up in DeLand and teaches at DeLand High School. Stetson was the only NCAA program to give him an offer his senior year.
"They had seen me play at every level," he said. "I would go to their baseball camps and stuff like that when I was young. I was fortunate that Coach Dunn gave me the roll I got as a freshman and I developed from there."
All those from the 1988 team are rooting for their young counterparts. Hickox said he expects to see at least a dozen players from those late 1980s and early 1990s teams.
Pitching can go a long way
As a Division I coach, Riginos believes that Stetson's hurlers can carry the team to Nebraska.
"I got to watch their regional games and I can tell you their pitching staff is as good as any team in the country," Riginos, 50, said.
"They have a strong rotation and a great lockdown closer (Brooks Wilson). In a three-game series, they are going to be hard to beat."
Hickox called these Hatters a "special bunch."
"The pitching is the backbone to their success," he said. "Unlike our team, they have a person on the mound every night that can win a game for them. They are probably feeling like that offensively, too, right now."
As for that game 30 years ago against FSU, Dunn still has fond memories of that day, even though it ended with a loss to the Gators.
"I don't know if showing the team the newspaper had anything to do with us beating FSU," he said. "But I know we disappointed a lot of the Seminoles' fans."
Dunn said FSU faithful missed the first game thinking the Seminoles were a lock for the championship battle with the Gators.
"We didn't have social media back then, and word didn't get out that we had beat FSU," Dunn said. "You wouldn't believe the number of people I saw walking up to the stadium wearing garnet and gold and hearing the news that Florida State had been sent home. Their jaws just dropped."
And Dunn said he found that experience quite enjoyable.
This article is written by Godwin Kelly from Daytona Beach News - Journal, The and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.