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How Wingate’s baseball team won its first national title
by Chuck Gordon

There’s something about the celebratory dogpile that’s counterintuitive: You’ve just won a championship, so your first thought is to take a running start and crush your teammates. Perhaps it’s designed to be one last reminder of the pain undergone to reach a goal. Or maybe it’s simply a bro-hug that instinctively snowballs out of control.

“You feel each person jumping on it with the added weight,” Wingate catcher Logan McNeely says. “It kind of hurts, but you get over it.”

It’s always worth it, of course, especially the one Wingate’s baseball players engaged in on June 12, 2021. By the time true freshman Sam Brodersen threw the last strike of the NCAA Division II season, flung his glove in unbridled joy and stood waiting for his elated teammates to descend upon him, Wingate’s Bulldogs were well prepared for the dogpile to end all dogpiles. It was their third one in two months, after all, and the euphoria of winning a national title masked any pain their teammates’ collective mass might inflict.

Wingate baseball players pile on each other in celebration

Besides, they’d been bearing each other’s weight for weeks, players up and down the roster taking turns stepping up in high-pressure situations and delivering. Brodersen, the fearless freshman, efficiently and emphatically shut the door on the nation’s No. 2-ranked team by going five hitless innings with an adrenaline-fueled fastball that kept getting faster and faster. A guy whose name is as baseball as it gets around Wingate, Gehrig Christopher, drove in the go-ahead run to make his Wingate-royalty grandmother proud. Even light-hitting redshirt sophomore Grayson Chapman rapped a pinch-hit double to pad the lead in the seventh.

When the dust had cleared, the Cinderella Bulldogs had beaten a top-15 team for the fifth time in a week to capture the school’s second NCAA Division II team national championship ever, and the first national title for a baseball program with a long and proud tradition of winning.

It was a dream postseason run for a squad that had a so-so regular season, finishing fourth in the South Atlantic Conference. Wingate got hot at the right time, winning the SAC tournament after losing a game early on, plowing through the Southeast Regional, and then winning an astounding five consecutive elimination games as the No. 6 seed in the College World Series. The Bulldogs capped off the week with a 5-3 victory over Central Missouri in front of a heavily pro-Wingate crowd at the USA Baseball National Training Complex just a couple of hours up the road in Cary, N.C., triggering the final and most satisfying dogpile of the season.

“We kept building momentum, momentum, momentum, and it just kept going,” says Jeff Gregory ’00, a Wingate assistant for nine seasons before being handed the reins as head coach in 2010.

Wingate’s administration likes to promote the University’s athletics program as a “model” for NCAA Division II. It makes sense. Bulldog athletes get it done on the field and in the classroom, achieving an enviable balance that includes 13 consecutive Echols Athletic Excellence Awards (for best athletics program in the South Atlantic Conference), a slew of All-Americans, and the most Academic All-America recipients in Division II and in all divisions among North Carolina schools (123 and counting) since 2000.

Just doing that much puts Wingate ahead of other schools in so many ways. But a national title every once in a while is a welcome cherry on top. Here’s how Wingate’s latest one – so improbable but oh so perfect – played out:

The loss that set up the title run

Wingate went to the Junior College World Series three times in the 1960s, under legendary head coach Ron Christopher, but that hardly prepared the 2021 Bulldogs for the magnitude of the moment. Having won a Division II regional tournament for the first time ever, Wingate dropped its first game of the double-elimination College World Series (CWS), 6-2 against Angelo State, the No. 10 team in the nation.

“We just needed nine innings to settle in,” says Gehrig Christopher, grandson of Ron, who died in 2010, and longtime Wingate English professor Dr. Beverly Christopher. “We were kind of nervous.”

The loss, of course, meant that the Bulldogs had the seven other teams right where they wanted them.

Wingate player Logan McNeely

“You could tell it was a much bigger stage in Cary,” says McNeely, who went 12-for-26 with six RBIs in the CWS to earn most outstanding player. “We were a little bit nervous and tight that first game. Then we started thinking, We’ve never been here before. Nobody’s expecting us to do something, so let’s just go out there, give it all we’ve got, play hard, have some fun and whatever happens happens.”

Gregory, a planner who fully understands the long-game nature of baseball, laid down a little Ted Lasso-like motivation after the opening loss: “Be where your feet are.”

Says second baseman McCann Mellett ’20, who came back for a fifth year as a grad student: “He said, ‘Don’t think about yesterday. Don’t think about tomorrow. Be where your feet are. Think about the moment you’re in right now.’”

That advice proved valuable as the week wore on.

Nash’s complete game

Offensively, Wingate is a base-hitting squad, not a power-hitting one. “We hit some long balls, but we weren’t going to wow you with average,” McNeely says. “None of our individual stats really popped off the page. We played a team brand of baseball: somehow manufacture runs any way you can, get on somehow.”

For a team like that, pitching is vital. And in that regard, Wingate was loaded. The Bulldogs brought quality and depth to the CWS. They were the only team to have a starter make it through seven innings – and three of them managed it.

None of those outings was more impressive than the complete game thrown by David Nash. After holding off Southern New Hampshire 3-2 in Game 2, Wingate got a gem of a performance from the fifth-year senior to advance to the final four. Nash was the only CWS pitcher to go the distance, leading Wingate to a 5-1 win over Seton Hill, the nation’s No. 4 team.

“Starting pitching is the key to everything you’re going to do,” Gregory says. “If you’re good on the mound, it just sets everything up for the rest of the game.”

Nash gave up just six hits and a walk on 111 pitches in a performance that saved Wingate’s bullpen for close games later in the week. It was another fitting outing from a player with a deep Bulldog lineage: Nash’s father, Bill Nash ’71, coached Wingate’s baseball team for 14 seasons and is now the director of the Bulldog Club.

David Nash’s performance meant that Wingate was set up nicely for the semifinals, where the Bulldogs would have to beat Angelo State twice if they were to advance to the championship game. Thanks to Nash’s heroics, Wingate’s relievers got an extra day to rest.

“David’s start was huge,” Gregory says. “When it came to our fifth game of the tournament, we had a fresh bullpen and had some options we could go to.”

Quick strike after a rain delay

Nash’s performance moved Wingate to the final four, but they still needed to beat Angelo State twice to make it to the finals. A loss and the Bulldogs’ week was done. Through seven innings, all was good, with Wingate taking a 4-0 lead into the eighth inning. By this point, the Bulldogs weren’t feeling the win-or-go-home pressure anymore.

But Angelo State plated three runs in the eighth and tied it up in the top of the ninth, as rain clouds started rolling into Cary. In the bottom of the ninth, Christopher drew a two-out walk to load the bases for Hunter Dula, who later in the summer would be drafted by the San Francisco Giants. Rain had been falling for a while, but as Dula settled in over home plate knowing a hit would end the game, the heavens opened up. The teams darted off the field, and the grounds crew quickly pulled a tarp over the infield.

For three and a half hours Dula and the Bulldogs waited. If they were miserable, they didn’t show it. “They were just sitting in the dugout and hanging out and laughing,” Gregory says. “They were picking at one another and just kept each other relaxed.”

Dula made it worth the wait. After play resumed, the first baseman quickly made sure Wingate and Angelo State would be playing a second game that day by knocking the first pitch into right field for an RBI single, giving Wingate a 5-4 win.

“That was one of the best moments I think I’ve ever seen,” Gregory says. “For him to be able to relax, understand the situation he was in and have a calm demeanor about it, and then one pitch, base hit, ball game – that says a lot about who he is and what he’s about and what this team’s about.”

In the second game, more heroics: In the 11th, Jed Bryant broke a 7-7 deadlock with a sacrifice fly, and in the bottom of the inning Tommy McCullom – who had experienced control problems late in the season and hadn’t pitched in well over a month – closed the door with a three-up, three-down inning to send Wingate to the national championship game.

For all the marbles

The double-elimination nature of postseason college-baseball tournaments has its pros and cons. For Wingate, it offered a reprieve after a shaky opening game. But it also meant having to dig deep to beat undefeated teams twice later in the tournament.

The Bulldogs caught a break on Friday when one-loss Tampa, an eight-time champion, beat two-time champ Central Missouri 8-1 in their first semifinal game, ensuring that whoever won their rematch would have one loss, just like Wingate, heading into the championship game. That meant a winner-take-all matchup for the title.

Wingate player McCann Mellett

“Once we saw that Tampa had beaten Central Missouri, we thought, We’ve got a real shot at this thing,” McNeely says.

Improbably (which is appropriate for this bunch), the Bulldogs leaned on a true freshman to pull them through against a Central Missouri team that would go on to have two players picked in the Major League draft. Brodersen was a hard thrower coming to Wingate as a freshman in the fall of 2020, but through hard work he’d upped his fastball from the mid- to upper-80s to the low-90s heading into the postseason.

In the title game, he topped out at 94 mph.

“He wants to win more than anybody I’ve probably ever seen,” Mellett says. “He’s one of the most dedicated grinders we had on the team. It’s not fun to face him.”

Just ask Central Missouri. Consistently one of the top teams in Division II, the Mules had no answer for the rookie. And it took some guts on Gregory’s part to entrust him with that moment, to hand the ball to a freshman down 3-2 in the national championship game.

Brodersen took it in stride. “I feel like when you come out of the bullpen you almost don’t have time to feel nervous, because everything happens so fast,” he says. “They tell you to go warm up, and then within five minutes you’re in the game.”

Brodersen immediately started challenging batters with fastball strikes. “I kept putting pressure on them to put the ball in play,” he says. “I wasn’t giving them anything free, which I feel like is my goal every time I go out there.”

Brodersen hadn’t pitched as many as four innings in a single game all year, but here he was heading into his fifth inning of work, in the ninth inning of the biggest game of his life. Gregory stayed the course. Even when Brodersen finally allowed a baserunner, walking the No. 8 batter with two outs and the dangerous top of the order looming around the corner, his coach stuck with him.

“The best thing I could do in that situation was try to stay out of the way and not overmanage it,” Gregory says. “One of the cool moments after it was all said and done, Sam walked up to me and to Coach (Dusty) White and told us the same thing. He said, ‘Thank you for trusting me with that game.’”

Trust. It’s a staple of the team-building industry. You close your eyes and fall backward during the office retreat to prove that you trust your colleagues. Whether that translates to trust in the workplace, who knows? For sports teams, the results are usually shown (or not) on the field. This team, with only a handful of senior leaders, managed to find a strong level of trust that grew and grew and manifested itself in a run out of nowhere to the top of the mountain.

The players trusted that their teammates would always be where their feet were.

“These guys, they really enjoyed playing,” Gregory says. “I think a lot of people could sense that. Some of the dynamics that we talk about that we want to have in our program – bringing energy and effort every single day, and trying to do the little things that become significant things throughout the course of the ballgame – obviously I think it showed. And there are people who became bigger fans of this team and this program because of how the guys went about their business every single day.”

Building on tradition

Wingate has a baseball tradition that dates back to Jack Perry’s multiseason undefeated run in the late ’50s. Ron Christopher, who in his 24 years proved demanding but always had his door open, became a Hall of Fame coach with a stadium named after him. (“That’s always something that’s gotten to me: It’s my grandpa’s field,” his grandson Gehrig says.) Bill Nash coached some of the greatest players Wingate has ever seen and won over 400 games and multiple conference titles. Even Steve Poston, retiring this year as Wingate’s longtime director of athletics, won a pair of conference titles as baseball coach in the ’70s.

Gregory talks about that legacy with his team, how important the program’s tradition is. He’s been a Bulldog almost continuously for the past 25 years. He played under Nash, coached under Allen Osborne during his three years at Wingate, and sat at Christopher’s kitchen table and absorbed the retired coach’s wisdom, pumping him for more tips. “I wasn’t bashful,” Gregory says.

Players holding up the national championships trophy

He took the lessons learned and made them his own. “He’s always about business,” Mellett says. In other words, taking care of your own business, being responsible.

“We’re not the biggest guys in the world, not the strongest, not the fastest, but I would say we do the little things right,” Mellett says.

When players are taking care of the little things, it means their teammates trust them, even when the situation looks dire. The pandemic was difficult. Room-bound, the players had to bond while keeping their distance from each other. That was especially hard for this high-spirited bunch of guys, who had so much fun even before they took the DII world by storm.

“All human beings are social creatures anyway,” Gregory says. “They had to navigate the pandemic. It’s not exactly an easy thing to do, but they did it.”

“This year especially was the most fun team I’ve ever been around,” Mellett says.

At many points during Wingate’s magical run, things could have turned disastrous quickly. But every time Wingate took the field with elimination a possibility, the team was resilient.

“I don’t think we ever looked at it as if our backs were against the wall,” Gregory says. “We just looked at it as another opportunity to go out and play and have a chance to be around one another again and share the field again.”