By Harry Minium
The last time Old Dominion University won a conference baseball title, Bill Clinton was in his first term as president, Nintendo 64 was the hottest thing to hit the market and Princess Diana and Prince Charles divorced.
Space Jam was all the rage at the movie theaters.
And not a single one of ODU’s current 44 players had been born.
ODU won the CAA tournament for the third consecutive year on May 18, 1996 in Kinston, North Carolina, when the Monarchs rallied in the bottom of the ninth to defeat James Madison, 4-3.
Matt Quatraro, now a member of ODU’s Athletic Hall of Fame, blasted two home runs in that game and pitcher and infielder Ron Walker was named tournament MVP. Tony Guzzo, then ODU’s head coach and now a special assistant to head coach Chris Finwood, was named CAA Coach of the Year.
In the 25 years since, the Monarchs hadn’t brought home a trophy.
Until Sunday, that is, when they played as they usually have this year, with determination, poise and old-fashioned guts and beat Louisiana Tech, 7-5, in 10 innings to claim the Conference USA title in Ruston, Louisiana.
It was the kind of victory that was characteristic of this team, full of big plays and heroic performances.
Heroic? How about Robbie Petracci, who tore his ACL last month, and who came into the game as a pinch hitter and drilled a home run. He didn’t run all that gingerly around the bases, but it didn’t matter, because without his home run in the top of the eighth, LA Tech would have won before the game went into extra innings.
Or Ryne Moore, Jason Hartline and Noah Dean, who had pitched earlier this week, and in spite of tired arms, hurled 2 2/3 solid innings of relief.
Clutch? How about Aaron Holliday, who has struggled much of this season as a relief pitcher, entering the game and throwing 1 1/3 scoreless innings to get the victory. He struck out the first two batters in the bottom the tenth, and then after walking a player, forced Hunter Wells, who led Conference USA in batting during the regular season, ground out to clinch the victory.
Obstacles? The Monarchs played before 2,484 full-throated LA Tech fans (the crowd looked bigger) crammed into the 2,500-seat J.C. Love Field at Pat Patterson Park, a stadium Finwood calls “the best in Conference USA.”
It was a hostile environment. The crowd let out a thunderous ovation when their team tied ODU, 5-5, in the bottom of the ninth on a Parker Bates solo shot that went on for several minutes.
Louisiana Tech seemed to be the team of destiny and their fans certainly believed it as the game headed into the 10th. The Bulldogs lost their second game of the tournament to Southern Miss, then rallied from deep deficits twice to beat Southern Miss on Saturday and knock the Golden Eagles out of the tournament.
The fans were on their feet as Kyle Battle, who led C-USA with 17 home runs, stepped to the plate in the top of the tenth. Shortstop Tommy Bell had been hit by a pitch and was on first base.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” said athletic director Wood Selig, who was doing commentary on the ODU Sports Radio Network, “if the leading home run hitter on the team that leads the nation in home runs knocked one out of the park?”
Seconds later, that’s just what Battle did, sending a line drive perhaps 30 or 40 feet over the right side of the center field fence.
As soon as his bat hit the ball, Battle knew it was gone.
“Oh, yeah,” said Battle, a senior from suburban Richmond. “I got all of that ball.
“It was a fastball and I got all of it.”
When I asked what was going through his mind when he stepped up to the plate, he said, “I treated it like any other at bat, to be honest.”
But as he was rounding first base, the enormity of what he’d just done hit him. He said that he blacked out for a few minutes.
“I don’t remember anything after that,” he said of his jaunt around the bases.
And who can blame him? It was the biggest home run of the year for a team that has a chance to become the best in ODU history.
ODU was ranked 10th in the NCAA RPI coming into the game and it appears the Monarchs will move into seventh when the RPI comes out Sunday.
“The winner of this game should be a No. 1 seed,” Selig said.
That will almost certainly be the case. Conference USA is rated as the nation’s fifth-best baseball league and will have four teams in the tournament – Southern Miss, Charlotte and LA Tech, which will host a regional.
Clearly, the best team in the such a rugged lead deserves to be No. 1.
The advantage to being a No. 1 seed is that you play a No. 4 seed in the first game. That’s a game the Monarchs should win.
ODU is 42-14 and has won seven games in a row and 10 of its last 11. The NCAA tournament committee likes teams that finish strong, and the Monarchs are red hot.
The victory was especially meaningful and emotional for Finwood, who lost his wife on April 1 to pancreatic cancer. The Monarchs rallied around their coach and vowed to win for him and his family.
They were also determined to win this tournament in part to get their picture on the outfield wall of the Bud Metheny Baseball Complex, along with those three CAA champions.
Finwood choked up when being interviewed by Ted Alexander, ODU’s radio voice.
“Our kids are unbelievable,” he said. “They really fight for each other.”
His voice broke as he added: “Their picture is going up on the wall.”
After the ODU victory, Twitter lit up, with congratulations pouring in for Finwood, who is beloved in the coaching profession. However, Petracci was trending, thanks to a Tweet from ODU baseball saying he had a torn ACL when he hit the home run.
By midnight Sunday, it had been liked or re-tweeted more than 1,500 times. And dozens of other baseball sites also tweeted about the freshman from Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey.
Battle said the Monarchs came into the game “with a nothing to lose mindset,” and that allowed them to relax even in a hostile stadium, where the Monarchs often drew boos and catcalls.
“We set a goal of going to Omaha (for the College World Series) before the season started,” he said. “It’s great that we won the tournament, but we still have a lot left to do.”
When asked how it felt to hit the biggest home run of the season, he shrugged.
“This is all on them,” he said of his teammates. “I just happened to hit it when we took the lead.”
Finwood received a Gatorade bath in the tumultuous post-game celebration and even the LA Tech fans cheered the Monarchs as they hoisted the championship trophy.
Did I mention that LA Tech was a fantastic host?
Bell was named the tournament MVP and besides being a vacuum cleaner at shortstop, he had eight hits in 13 at bats (a .615 average) and belted three home runs. He scored seven runs and had eight RBI in four games.
His three-run blast in the top of the sixth gave the Monarchs a 4-3 lead, their first of the game.
His MVP award is named for C-USA Assistant Commissioner Russ Anderson, who died unexpectedly at age 50 a few months ago. Anderson has been with C-USA since it was founded and baseball was his favorite sport. He was not only one of the best in the sports information business, he was just a wonderful guy.
I can’t think of a better guy to win the first Russ Anderson trophy. Bell is as humble as they come.
“I have been here for four years and I have never been on a team like this,” Bell said.
“I love these guys. This is really a special feeling.”
He then stopped talking for a few seconds and added: “I’m at a loss for words right now.”
Bell was joined by catcher Brock Gagliardi, who had three hits Sunday; outfielder Andy Garriola and pitcher Hunter Gregory on the all-tournament team.
Gariolla hit three home runs in Friday’s victory over Florida Atlantic. The Monarchs, who lead the nation with 101 home runs, hit 14 dingers in their four tournament games, including seven against FAU.
ODU will find out where it will play at noon Sunday when the 64-team bracket is unveiled on ESPN2.
The Monarchs got on a double-decker sleeper bus around 8 p.m. and hope complete the 1,095-mile ride in time to watch the NCAA pairings show in Norfolk.
Where will the Monarchs play? It all depends on seeding.
I hope the Monarchs head to East Carolina, which is 2 ½ hours from Norfolk, close enough for fans to make the drive.
However Aaron Fitt from D1Baseball, one of the most connected college baseball reporters, wrote that he expects ODU will be a No. 1 seed and so likely will ECU.
Because the NCAA won’t put two No. a seeds in the same region, he expects ODU will play at South Carolina, which will be a No. 2 seed.
Columbia, South Carolina is a 5 ½-hour drive from Norfolk. And while the Gamecocks lost four of their last five games, it plays in the SEC, which is even more dominant in baseball than it is in football.
Finwood said the partisan crowd in Ruston – the Monarchs finished the regular season at LA Tech with two games last week – “really helped prepare us for what we’ll see next week. Every game here, LA Tech had great crowds.
“Wherever we go, the home team will have a lot of support.”
Battle said the Monarchs don’t really care where they end up playing.
“We’ll be excited to play wherever they put us,” he said.
After all, as he said, this team still has much more to accomplish.
Minium worked 39 years at The Virginian-Pilot, where he was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won 27 state and national writing awards. He writes news stories, features and commentaries for odusports.com and odu.edu Follow him on Twitter @Harry_MiniumODU, Instagram @hbminium1 or email email@example.com