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Coastal Carolina is no Cinderella: How a College World Series champ was built in the Big South

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The Chanticleers' baseball national championship wasn't some fluke run by a desperate underdog. It was the result of a meticulous construction project 21 years in the making.

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There's an inherent contradiction in saying that a team which toted around a stuffed monkey charm for the better part of two months doesn't believe in luck.

Back in early May, during a rest stop on the drive home from a series loss to Georgia Tech, Coastal Carolina relief pitcher Bobby Holmes shucked out $20 on what he hoped would be a mojo-shifting talisman for a team with legit designs on the College World Series. With Rafiki the toy monkey watching from the dugout, the Chanticleers won 24 of their next 28 games, a streak that concluded Thursday with a 4-3 win over Arizona to clinch the school's first national championship in any sport.

"Some people are still going to say we got lucky," senior outfielder Anthony Marks quipped after Coastal became the first Big South* team to capture a national title of any kind. "And that's fine. They can say whatever they want. It ain't luck. This is blood, sweat and tears."

*The Big South got to enjoy the championship for all of eight hours before Coastal's baseball program officially joined the Sun Belt at midnight.

Indeed, Coastal is no one's Cinderella. The Chants are the 10th winningest program in college baseball since 2000. During that span, they've won 10 Big South titles, made the NCAA Tournament every year but two, hosted three regionals and advanced to two super regionals. They went 55-18 in 2016, ranked in the USA Today top-25 poll every week since April and took down some of the biggest brand names in college baseball during their magical run through the NCAA Tournament: NC State, LSU, Florida, TCU and Arizona.

So how does a small-scale program like Coastal, whose 2014-15 athletic budget was some $60 million less than the program it beat in the national championship, build itself into a college baseball power? It all starts with the immeasurable tenacity of its head coach.

"This program has been a lot better than people give it credit for," Gary Gilmore, who spent the last 21 years driving toward a goal many told him was unobtainable in the Big South, said during his national championship press conference. "They thought we played in a small conference and couldn't get this done. This bunch wanted to prove everybody wrong."

***

Gary Gilmore

Over the years, Gilmore's friends tried to talk him into visiting Omaha, just for the experience. As admirable as they considered his promise to take his alma mater to the College World Series — a pledge he made when he was hired as the Chants' head coach in 1995 — it wasn't something that struck many of them as particularly realistic.

Gilmore always refused. The only way he would make that trip, he said, is if one of his teams made it.

"He's been coaching for 21 years, and he deserves every bit of it. We got him to Omaha and we got him a national championship," said junior pitcher Andrew Beckwith, who's Game 3 gem was his third win of the College World Series.

This group was driven by its desire to fulfill its coach's dream, the result of a tight-knit, family environment Gilmore fostered by drawing heavily from the local area. All but one of the assistant coaches graduated from Coastal (Gilmore played centerfield for the Chants in 1979 and 1980) and 10 players of the roster are in-state products. Beckwith, who was named the CWS MVP, and Mike Morrison, the closer who gutted out a 103-pitch start to push the championship series to a Game 3, grew up just outside of Columbia; Duncan product Alex Cunningham notched the title-clinching strikeout with Arizona's potential tying run on third base; and G.K. Young, whose two-run homer in the sixth inning was the deciding scoring play of the game, was born and raised minutes from the Coastal campus.

None of those names were called before Day 3 of the MLB Draft (Coastal had just two players selected in the first 26 rounds: Michael Paez and Zach Remillard). Over the last four seasons, none of Coastal's recruiting classes have landed inside the top 30 of Perfect Game's rankings.

In a state dominated by Clemson and South Carolina, Gilmore built his championship roster by spending long hours on the recruiting trail uncovering prospects the larger programs overlooked.

"We're not the most talented team in America," Gilmore said as his players hoisted the College World Series trophy on the field of TD Ameritrade Park. "We're just the national champion. That's all I know. That's all that matters."

***

One day during Gilmore's first year on the job, he noticed school president Ron Ingle taking one of his weekly strolls through campus. Gilmore invited him to walk across the outfield, a surface cratered with holes that the coaches had been trying to get fixed for months. Ingle immediately sunk ankle-deep into the swampy ground, forcing Gilmore to reclaim the president's expensive shoe with a shovel.

"A week later they've got the money to [put in] a new drainage system," an amused Gilmore recalled while speaking last week with Myrtle Beach Online.

Thus goes the process of methodically building a program with limited resources. Gilmore and his assistants saved meal money by making the team's lunches on the road. They slept in their cars or crashed with friends of friends during recruiting trips.

The opportunities for greener pastures were there. In 2008, Gilmore was approached by Auburn about a head coaching position—an opportunity that glimmered with SEC salary and facilities. University president David DeCenzo (Ingle and his muddy shoe had since moved on) convinced Gilmore to take a visit and hear the offer. Gilmore turned it down.

"I just love this place to be honest with you, and I just honestly thought you could get it done here," he said in Omaha last week. "There's been a battle or two here or there where I thought, ‘Oh, I don't know if we can get this done or not,' but every time ... the one thing about Coastal is the people who love it find ways around all the roadblocks you have."

Gilmore's one request of DeCenzo after passing on his chance at an SEC job?

"I need a stadium."

***

Coastal Champs

It took seven years for DeCenzo to make good on his promise. Last season, Coastal opened the doors to Springs Brook Stadium, part of a $15 million renovation project that Gilmore called a "game changer". With state-of-the-art player facilities, a $700,000 video board and room for up to 6,000 fans, the new digs rivals some of the top stadiums in the country.

Gilmore has quickly gone about using his team's lavish new home (and the nearby shores of Myrtle Beach) to lure in big-name non-con opponents for early-season tournaments and midweek games. In the past two seasons alone, the Chants have hosted Cal, Clemson, Duke, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, NC State, North Carolina, Ohio State, Ole Miss, Virginia, Wake Forest and West Virginia.

"We feel by hosting these tournaments, as opposed to just hosting a three-game weekend series, we can get better prepared for the season and build our resume for the postseason," Gilmore told D1Baseball last year.

Gilmore's aggressive scheduling in 2016 led to the seventh toughest non-con slate in the country, a big reason why the Chants finished the regular season ranked 12th in the RPI.

***

On June 19, Gary Gilmore was recognized by the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association as the National Coach of the Year.

"Coastal Carolina, they took a huge chance 21 years ago on a guy that happened to be an alum that had a lot of passion," Gilmore humbly recounted during his acceptance speech, according to Myrtle Beach Online. "I just want to thank them. They gave me an opportunity and I can never thank them enough for what they've done."

Twelve days later, the Coastal Carolina players streamed onto the field in Omaha, sprinting into a chaotic dog pile of jubilation. Behind them came the man who for so long dreamed of this moment, making his way out to accept the national championship trophy and make good on a promise voiced two decades ago.