GREENWOOD – While the state-of-the-art Stephen B. Dolny Stadium was being built earlier this decade, architects of the Lander University baseball program envisioned a moment like what unfolded in the middle of the diamond deep in the night on Monday morning.
As Lander recorded the final out at 1:34 a.m. to clinch the school's first-ever trip to the NCAA Division II College World Series, the Bearcats spilled onto the field for a celebratory "dog pile" in front of a boisterous, appreciative crowd.
In just its third year in the impressive new stadium, the Lander baseball program which had never been to an NCAA Tournament during its 14 years at historic Legion Field had achieved one of the ultimate milestones of college baseball.
Next Saturday in Cary, N.C., the Bearcats can begin chasing THE ultimate goal.
Lander ace Dylan Wolchik retired 19 consecutive batters from the third through eighth innings and Erik Lunde hit a crucial home run as the top seed and nationally second ranked Bearcats beat No. 3 seed Columbus State University 5-2 to win the NCAA Division II Southeast Regional championship and a trip to the College World Series.
Wolchik struck out three in the ninth and the Lander players chased him beyond second base before finally pulling him down for the celebratory dog pile deep into a foggy night at Dolny Stadium.
Columbus State needed to beat Lander twice to advance to the CWS and routed the Bearcats 19-5 earlier Sunday to force a second game that didn't start until 11:05 p.m. (the first game started six hours late due to rain).
Lander, which hasn't lost two games in a row all season, bounced back from the lopsided loss with the victory and improved to 51-7. Columbus State ended its remarkable season at 40-17. The Cougars staved off elimination twice including a miraculous rally against Catawba College late Saturday evening before falling Monday morning.
The Bearcats have won 20 of their last 21 games.
The other seven Regional champions who advanced to the double-elimination College World Series May 24-31 at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., were No. 1 ranked Tampa (51-2), Seton Hill (40-15), Minnesota State-Mankato (45-9), Colorado-Mesa (44-11), Southern Indiana (45-12), St. Thomas Aquinas (39-16) and Chico State (43-13).
The Peach Belt Conference regular season and tournament champions and now Southeast Regional champion Bearcats will meet West Regional winner Chico State (California) in the first round of the CWS Saturday at 5 p.m.
This is Lander coach Kermit Smith's second trip to the College World Series. He led Belmont Abbey to the CWS in his last year there in 2009 before taking over the Bearcats program in June of that year.
The Bearcats used Wolchik on three days' rest versus Columbus State's Taylor Cato, who was making his first start of the year. Cato had only worked 16.1 innings in 2014. Wolchik had thrown a 122-pitch complete game 4-1 victory in Lander's Regional opener against Catawba on Thursday.
Wolchik (12-1) came up big again in his final Dolny Stadium appearance, allowing no hits after the second inning until an infield single with two outs in the ninth. The senior right-hander allowed two runs on six hits in nine innings, striking out eight and walking only one. Wolchik threw 123 pitches, including 85 for strikes. He improved his two-year Lander record to 22-2.
But he did have a tough first inning as the Cougars picked up where they left off from Sunday night's first game when Brendan Collins hit a leadoff homer down the left-field line. It was his fifth blast of the season. Jackson Oliver walked, moved to third on Jimmy Obermark's single, and scored on Dustin Averett's single for a 2-0 lead. It gave Columbus 21 unanswered runs on the night. But Wolchik escaped further damage by retiring Mike McClellan on a pop out to first and Carson Bowers on a rare 1-5-3 double play.
It appeared Lander might waste a scoring opportunity in the bottom of the first after Lunde and Patrick Grady led off with walks. But Weston Lawing hit a two-out, two-run double into the left field corner, tying the game at 2. It was the first Bearcats runs since the second inning of Sunday's first game.
Wolchik escaped more damage in the second when he stranded two runners in scoring position after Blake Edwards and Collins reached on infield singles.
The Bearcats threatened in the bottom of the second after Chris Hyatt's one-out walk. But Columbus State left fielder Matt Nettles made a spectacular catch as he spun around at the warning track to grab a Thomas Bess line drive for the second out, and then Hyatt was thrown out at second trying to advance on a wild pitch.
Not to be outdone by the Cougars left fielder, Lander right fielder Grady made a full-sprint diving catch of Averett's line drive for the second out of the top of the third followed by third baseman Colby Painter's nice defensive stop for the last out of the inning.
One minute later, it was midnight.
There was more excitement in the bottom of the third when Lunde singled, Connor Lewis walked and Thomas Berry was hit by a pitch to load the bases. When Lawing flew out to medium left, Lunde attempted to score but was thrown out at the plate on a perfect throw by Nettles.
Cato was replaced on the mound after allowing two runs on two hits and four walks in three innings. Graham Ramos led off against Mike McGinnity in the bottom of the fourth, reached on an error, and scored on Painter's double to give the Bearcats a 3-2 lead.
Meanwhile, Wolchik was settling in on the mound and retired the side in order in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings. Second baseman Ramos ended the sixth with a nice catch in short right on a ball that was in danger of dropping between three defenders.
With one on and two out in the bottom of the sixth (Painter was hit by a pitch), Bess hit another long drive to deep left that Nettles caught.
Wolchik retired the side in order again in the top of the seventh, running his consecutive outs streak to 16 as Lander clung to its one-run lead.
Wolchik's effort was just what Lander needed after using five pitchers including outfielder Lawing in giving up 19 runs in the first game that extended the night several more hours.
Lunde led off the bottom of the seventh with a solo home run, hitting a 3-2 pitch over the right-field wall to give the Bearcats a 4-2 lead. It was his 14th homer of the season and a big insurance run that brought a jolt of energy to the tired fans. Grady followed with a single to center, ending the night for McGinnity (7-2) who allowed two runs, one earned, on three hits in three innings and took the loss.
Columbus State brought in closer Trey Watson and after Grady stole his 16th base in as many attempts this season and moved to third on Berry's ground out, Lawing drove him home with a seeing-eye single past the diving shortstop. It was Lawing's third RBI of the game and gave Lander a more comfortable 5-2 advantage.
There were now just six outs standing between the Bearcats and Cary, N.C.
Wolchik retired the side in order for the sixth straight time in the eighth, making two great defensive plays himself. Collins laid down a nice bunt along the third base line that Wolchik fielded and then threw a strike to first base for the second out. On the next play, Oliver smacked the ball into the hole that was fielded by Lewis, who threw to a streaking Wolchik for the out at first.
Wolchik's 19 consecutive outs streak ended when Obermark led off the ninth by reaching on an error. The senior struck out Averett and McClellan before Bowers reached on an infield single up the middle on which shortstop Lunde made a diving stop on and nearly got a force at second.
Edwards came to the plate as the potential tying run but Wolchik caught him looking on a 1-2 pitch for the final out, setting off a wild celebration to end a Regional to remember.
Lunde was 2-for-4 with a home run, RBI and two runs scored; Lawing was 2-for-4 with a double and three RBI; Painter went 2-for-3 with two doubles and the go-ahead RBI; and Grady was 1-for-3 with a stolen base and two runs scored.