William and Mary baseball’s NCAA tournament appearance is markedly different than its last trip, in 2001, though there are a few similarites.
First, the Tribe received an at-large bid after falling to hot-hitting, free-swinging Towson in the CAA tournament’s championship round. Twelve years ago, W&M earned the conference’s automatic bid by defeating James Madison in the title game.
“An at-large selection proves that you had a good season over the long haul,” Tribe coach Jamie Pinzino said. “Winning the conference tournament to get to the NCAAs is very satisfying, but getting an at-large bid might be a little bit more satisfying, because that means you played good, consistent baseball all season.”
The Tribe opens against SEC power Ole Miss (37-22) in the Raleigh, N.C., regional. Top-seed N.C. State faces Binghamton in the other game.
William and Mary (37-22) tied the school record for overall wins this season and set the record for league wins (17-10) on the way to finishing solo second behind UNC Wilmington. W&M was ranked 44th in Warren Nolan’s baseball Ratings Percentage Index, and the CAA was the No. 8-rated conference, which contributed to the league getting two at-large selections, coincidentally, for the first time since 2001.
At the 2001 CAA tournament, league schools caught a break with the exclusion of East Carolina. Remember that ECU and Richmond were ineligible for the league tournament and automatic bid after both schools, along with American, announced that they were leaving at the end of the school year. Notably, all three were ineligible for the basketball tournament under league bylaws, but it applied to baseball and other team sports as well.
ECU went 47-13 that year and blew through the CAA with a 19-2 record. The Pirates had six first-team all-conference selections, including three-quarters of the infield, and three second-teamers.
William and Mary, the No. 2 seed behind VCU, opened the tournament by beating George Mason. The Tribe bounced VCU the second day 8-3 behind Clark Saylor’s strong starting performance and four home runs, from Michael Brown (2), all-conference shortstop Brendan Harris and second baseman Trey Wakefield.
Because the Tribe won its first two games, it had two chances to win the title. W&M lost the first game to JMU, which had won three games the previous two days to make the championship final. W&M defeated the Dukes 6-5 in the title game, as tournament MVP Mike O’Kelly’s second home run snapped a 5-all tie in the eighth inning.
Freshman right-hander Chris Ray, a future pro who pitched for the Orioles before developing arm trouble, recorded the last four outs for the win.
Though the Tribe went into the NCAA regional that year with a great deal of confidence, it lost the first two games to homestanding Clemson and top-seed South Alabama and was eliminated.
William and Mary’s 2001 title was part of a lengthy building process by former coach Jim Farr. He was in his ninth year and had gradually built a respectable, competitive program after a dismal recent history. The year before, the Tribe had won three CAA tournament games and had finished one game away from playing for the title — a 14-13 loss to VCU in the semis, with ECU awaiting the winner.
Pinzino, on the other hand, is in his first year as the Tribe’s head coach. He served one year as assistant coach to Frank Leoni last season, working primarily with the pitchers, and he was the overwhelming choice of current players to replace Leoni.
Pinzino is quick to point out that this season didn’t represent a quantum leap. The Tribe won 31 games last season, behind the CAA’s top pitching staff. But his steady hand and the improvement of a handful of returning players were the difference, particularly in close games.
Also, understand that in pre-expansion CAA days, every team made the baseball tournament. Once the league expanded, the format was limited to just the top six teams. W&M had not even qualified for the CAA tournament since 2008 and had won only one postseason game since 2004.
That’s why Pinzino and the staff never mentioned the NCAA tournament, not for a program that hadn’t even made its conference tournament.
“At the beginning of the year, you know that the only way you're assured of getting to the NCAA tournament is to win your conference tournament, so it wasn't something that we ever talked about,” he said. “We talked about qualifying for the conference tournament, which we hadn't done in a while, and taking small steps.
“As the year went along, we put together a good record and picked up some quality wins. Our strength of schedule was pretty good, our RPI was good all season, so I knew we were in the mix. But from the beginning, we said that our focus was on trying to play good baseball on game day, win on the weekends and let the chips fall where they may.”