D-III squad loses in WS on day school shuttered

Date:

Espn

  • Associated Press

May 31, 2024, 09:56 PM ET

EASTLAKE, Ohio — And the baseball team played on.

Birmingham-Southern rallied before losing its opening game in the Division III World Series 7-5 on Friday, the same day the private liberal arts school’s doors officially closed after more than 160 years.

The Panthers fell behind 7-0 in the fifth inning to Salve Regina but fought back in a style befitting this odds-defying season.

They scored four runs in the seventh to pull within two and threatened in the eighth and ninth innings but couldn’t come up with the clutch hit.

“Proud of our guys,” manager Jay Weisberg said. “The message in the locker room was I’m not upset. We got off to a little bit of a rocky start, but the way we played the last five innings is who we are. Let’s just keep moving on.”

The loss in the double-elimination tournament means Birmingham-Southern must win Saturday to keep its inspiring season going. The Panthers (32-15) will face Randolph-Macon, which lost 11-3 to Wisconsin-Whitewater in its opener.

There’s no margin for error, and that’s OK with Weisberg, who didn’t need to remind his team it has been in tougher spots.

“At the beginning of the season if someone tells you, ‘I’m going to put you in a scenario where you’re going to be in the college World Series competing for a national championship, but you’re going to be 0-1,'” he said, “I think we’d all take that.”

The game was played against the backdrop of Birmingham-Southern’s closure, a shutdown necessitated by the school being turned down for a $30 million loan that would have kept it going.

While the closing has been painful for many, the Panthers’ run has brought some welcomed joy to the school’s tight-knit community.

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as Birmingham-Southern took the field while being cheered on by hundreds of fans who made the trip from Alabama to root on a team that has pulled together over the past two months and still has a shot at a national championship.

The team also brought along a 200-pound metal panther nicknamed “Rowdy” that usually resides on a brick wall near the campus — but “supposedly just fell off its mount,” Weisberg said.

The mascot didn’t help as Salve Regina built a 7-0 lead behind a three-run homer by Brady Smolinski and two-run shot by Tyler Cannoe before closer Kyle Carozza struck out the side in the ninth.

Before the first pitch, parents, alumni and a group of Sigma Chi fraternity brothers whose chapter house at Birmingham-Southern was decommissioned this week mingled in the parking lot outside Classic Park, home of the Class A Lake County Captains.

There seemed to be a few extra hugs and toasts at this tailgate with the school now in the past tense.

“Most everybody here are alumnus from other schools, but we have fallen in love with this school,” said Mary Steadman, who had two sons play for the Panthers. “We’ve watched our kids thrive. I’ve had two thrive. I have one who had zero trouble getting a job, and it was from his Birmingham-Southern contacts.

“I love the university I graduated from, but I love Birmingham-Southern. I kind of feel like I missed out on something.”

The Panthers’ story of loss, determination and togetherness has not only united the school’s alumni, employees and faculty during a tough time but they have also become something of a national sensation with fans across the country.

“Nobody wanted us to win,” Salve Regina coach Eric Cirella said.

On Thursday, Topps announced it was producing a limited-run trading card featuring Birmingham-Southern’s improbable run. The card will feature the Panthers celebrating their Super Regional and World Series berth-clinching win — a game they played while being overrun by a teamwide stomach virus.

At one point during that 7-6 victory at Denison, Weisberg, who has built one of the nation’s top Division III programs over 17 years at the school, was filled with more pride when he saw players getting IVs just to get through the game.

In March, when the school announced it would be shutting its doors for good on May 31, Weisberg stood in front of his team and delivered the news to his players. Many of them broke down crying.

As his team took batting practice Thursday, Weisberg recalled the message that took clearly took hold.

“There’s always going to be pain in your life,” he told them. “There’s always going to be uncertainty. There’s always going to be hard work to do. It all went back to COVID, and these guys were all in high school or college and they thought that was going to be the most traumatic thing that ever happened to them.

“But I said, hey man, look at three years later and you’re OK. All of you are going to be OK. You don’t see it right now. I think that’s why we’re here.”

Birmingham-Southern is 19-5 since the school announced the permanent closure, and Weisberg said his team has become the closest he has coached.

Before taking a charter flight to Cleveland on Tuesday, the Panthers gathered for their final practice on the school’s campus, where dumpsters are being filled with discarded furniture and memories.

As he drove the familiar route from home to school, fifth-year outfielder Ian Hancock was struck by the finality of it all.

“The fact that it was the practice, and honestly last thing to go on at that field was bittersweet,” said the slugger from Roswell, Georgia. “We have all this excitement with the World Series, but the fact that it was the end of a chapter there for the program was sad.”

Hancock was given the honors of being the last to take batting practice.

On his last swing, he connected for a home run, setting off an impromptu celebration as the Panthers hollered and danced on a field they will never play on again.

In the moment, Weisberg smiled. Later, it hit him hard.

“I got a little emotional,” he said. “This run has been so fun, that all the positives of it have taken away the feelings of, oh, this is it. I thank these guys for that.”

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