AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn's baseball team is heading to the super regional trying to secure a berth in the College World Series while coping with off-field tragedies.
The Tigers swept through the NCAA regionals, upsetting No. 3 national seed Georgia Tech with Steven Williams' walk-off homer helping to propel them into Saturday's matchup with North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
It was a feat for Auburn to celebrate amid some tough times on and off the field.
Longtime Auburn broadcaster Rod Bramblett and his wife, Paula, were killed in a car accident on May 25. Five days before the Brambletts' deaths, Auburn police officer William Buechner — a baseball season ticket holder — was killed and two other officers wounded while reporting to a domestic disturbance.
Williams reflected this week on Bramblett not being around to broadcast his heroics.
"In the postgame interview room, coach (Butch) Thompson said every Auburn fan was just hearing Rod's voice saying it," Williams said. "I saw a Facebook post of what he would have said, probably, and I could just hear him saying it. Definitely, I wish he would have been there to do it, but I'm glad I could give that moment to the Auburn family."
Bramblett was better known for his calls of Auburn football and basketball games but had been the play-by-play guy for Auburn baseball since 1993. He called the games for Auburn baseball through the late-season slump, the injuries and an embarrassing Southeastern Conference Tournament loss.
Rod Bramblett has been a part of our program for the past 27 seasons.— Auburn Baseball (@AuburnBaseball) May 26, 2019
We are devastated by the passing of he and his wife, Paula, and ask for continued prayers for the Bramblett family. 🙏#WarEagle | #Legacy pic.twitter.com/ialYJJhYFl
Players wore stickers on their batting helmets with a microphone between Bramblett's initials above the phrase "Forever Auburn."
Thompson doesn't think he has truly dealt with the emotional void left behind by the Brambletts. The coach left straight from a private memorial service to Atlanta for the regional tournament at Georgia Tech. Seeing the suit — something he rarely takes on a baseball trip — he had worn to the service later on the team bus was "the most heartbroken I've been."
He said baseball has been a needed diversion.
"Probably another blessing of us still playing baseball is allowing us to let it sink in slowly instead of hitting us right between our eyes," Thompson said.
But he's not trying to make this a "win-for-Rod" moment. He believes that would be a disservice to Bramblett, who Thompson frequently huddled with at practices and who players remember seeing lost in his headphones and microphone prepping for the next broadcast on the team bus.
"I just want to make sure that we honor them, and that we're not using Rod and Paula to try to win a baseball game," Thompson said. "We want them with us and to honor them and the children (Shelby and Joshua) that are still here.
"In the same way, I want to make sure I'm a respectful coach, because your season's still going on. We're only honoring him. We're not trying to use his name to get one more base hit, or one more magical moment. They're with us, and I'll take whatever happens with our ball club."
So often in TV we have to cut soundbites short due to time, but I think that everything Butch Thompson had to say about his team playing through the loss of Rod and Paula Bramblett is important.— Patrick Brickman (@PatrickBrickman) June 5, 2019
Truly heartfelt words from the Head Coach before the team heads off to Chapel Hill. pic.twitter.com/SqkGaRAT5x
Auburn swept through the regional with three straight wins. Williams, who is batting just .241 after a big freshman season, hit a three-run homer to beat Georgia Tech Friday night and drove in 10 runs in Atlanta.
The Tigers also have had some on-the-field issues, including injuries to pitchers Davis Daniel, Jack Owen and Tanner Burns. Daniel, a seventh-round pick of the Los Angeles Angels, hasn't pitched in a game since an elbow injury on opening night.
Auburn, which doesn't have a hitter among the SEC's top 46 in batting average, made an unceremonious exit from the league tournament. They fell 11-1 to Vanderbilt and then lost 4-3 to LSU, which scored the tying and winning runs after a wild pitch and throwing error in the bottom of the ninth.
Auburn also lost three of its last four SEC regular-season series.
Then came the community's jarring losses of the Brambletts and Buechner — and a resurgence for the team.
Said Williams: "We're definitely playing right now for something bigger than ourselves."