Davidson baseball coach Dick Cooke on his near-fatal accident
Is it possible to play the roles of both David and Goliath at the same time?
Yes it is -- if you are Davidson.
Davidson’s baseball team slew Goliath – twice – over the weekend.
The Wildcats edged North Carolina, the No. 2 overall seed in the country, for the second time in three days Sunday night, winning 2-1 in a dramatic game that featured a Tar Heel being thrown out at the plate on a controversial call in the bottom of the ninth inning to help seal the win.
At the same time that was happening, Steph Curry was lighting up the NBA Finals with his first triple-double in playoff history (32 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds) in another blowout Golden State win over Cleveland.
Curry, Davidson’s most famous athlete ever, long ago shook off the underdog cloak. Curry is a two-time NBA MVP who plays for a ridiculously talented Golden State team that has gone an extraordinary 14-0 in these NBA playoffs and has a 2-0 lead on Cleveland in these NBA Finals.
So in other words, this was quite a weekend to be a Wildcat. And this will continue to be quite a week to be associated with Davidson – undoubtedly one of the finest athletic periods in school history if you are a fan of all Davidson sports.
And if you are a longtime Davidson fan steeped in the school’s strong academic reputation, you will also appreciate this: On the way to Chapel Hill and the eventual beatdown of the Tar Heels last week, the Davidson players had the television blaring on the team bus. That’s not unusual, but this is for a college sports team: The Wildcats were watching the National Spelling Bee, hooting and hollering and trying to spell the words themselves.
Davidson would then arrive at Chapel Hill and never trail in three consecutive games, winning the regional while going undefeated to advance to a “super regional” at Texas A&M this weekend. Davidson is one of 16 teams left in the NCAA tournament; 299 schools field Division I-A baseball teams.
Davidson head baseball coach Dick Cooke survived a ghastly car accident in 2012 to make it to this point. When asked how Cloud 9 felt, Cooke said Monday after the team returned home to Davidson: “I’ll tell you when I come down off Cloud 31.”
One week ago, Davidson star pitcher Durin O’Linger proclaimed to The Observer: “Everyone knows we’re gonna go win the regional. I feel bad for whatever No. 1 seed has to play us.”
I laughed when I read that a week ago; maybe you did, too. I never really expected it to happen. But it has. O’Linger got the win in the first game against the Tar Heels Friday and then saved the second on Sunday, coming on in relief in the eighth inning and barely surviving the ninth.
Incidentally, before you start calling O’Linger “Nostradamus,” know this: Davidson’s star hitter, Will Robertson, chortles that O’Linger says outrageous things all the time. O’Linger predicted Sunday morning, for instance, that Golden State would lose the next two games in the NBA Finals by “a combined total of 98 points,” according to Robertson. Instead, Golden State won Game 2 going away.
The Davidson baseball run reminds me to some degree of what Davidson basketball accomplished in 2008 with Curry, now a future hall of famer at Golden State. Davidson basketball coach Bob McKillop and Cooke bear some similarities, too. They are each beloved figures who have coached well over two decades at the school, although McKillop had gotten his teams to the NCAA tournament several times in the B.C. (Before Curry) era and Cooke is directing his first team to make the NCAA tournament at Davidson in his 27 years.
That Davidson basketball team of 2008 sneaked up on a lot of people and came within one missed three-pointer of getting to the Final Four.
The difference between that 2008 basketball team and this 2017 baseball team? Curry. As baby-faced as he was, as frail as he looked, Curry even as a sophomore in 2008 was already a sharpshooter who was going to be one of the best players in the world.
Davidson’s 2017 baseball team doesn’t have anybody like that. There are no future first-round draft choices on this roster. The Wildcats have less than three full scholarships to divide among a roster of 35 players (the NCAA maximum is 11.7 scholarships; most of the teams left in the tournament will approach that maximum).
O’Linger, has rubber-armed his way through two straight amazing weekends. O’Linger’s pitch count would be way too high under normal circumstances – he threw 236 pitches in the Atlantic 10 tournament and 128 more in the Chapel Hill regional this past weekend. But these are not normal circumstances.
O’Linger doesn’t dream of a baseball career. His right arm will be mostly used to count pills in his adult life -- O’Linger is a Phi Beta Kappa student at Davidson who starts pharmacy school at the University of Florida in the fall.
This is his last hurrah, but it keeps getting extended. Who’s to say how far the Davidson run will go? The Davidson campus is practically empty these days -- the 1,950-student college doesn’t offer on-campus summer school, which is one reason why Curry has had a hard time finishing his college degree after leaving a year early.
But the baseball team just keeps showing up and plugging along. It arrived back from Chapel Hill Monday to a small but enthusiastic crowd, with players grinning sheepishly as they came off the bus.
How far can Wildcats go?
If you can beat the No. 2 team in the country, you can conceivably beat anybody. Davidson had never won a conference baseball championship in 115 years of playing the sport until this team did it, nor had the Wildcats appeared in the NCAA tourney until Friday. Davidson now needs to win a “super regional” -- a two-out-of-three series on the road against Texas A&M -- to make it to the College World Series in Omaha.
While he Davidson baseball squad certainly acts happy to be here, it isn’t satisfied. This Davidson baseball team shows a lot of the inherent joy and camaraderie that the 2008 Davidson basketball team did, as well as a similar level of competitiveness.
Curry, meanwhile, is going to win another NBA championship soon – perhaps before this week is out. He is playing remarkably well, and with Kevin Durant as his co-star, the Warriors have become almost unbeatable. (I predicted before this NBA series began that Golden State would sweep Cleveland; the Warriors are now halfway there but would have to win two games on the road to accomplish that).
Regardless of where it stops, what a ride this is for Wildcats fans.
Davidson will try to keep slaying Goliaths in one sport, Curry will keep trying to play Goliath in another, and we will just have to see who can best use a slingshot. It’s going to be a lot of fun.