We’re No. 2, we’re No. 2!
Unfortunately, Chico, ranked No. 1 in the country, could not endure the ill luck of running into a talented team on a hot streak and the crowd in its corner.
Fate ultimately chose the stronger felines, as Georgia’s Columbus State Cougars derailed the Wildcats’ bid for their third national championship in six years, 5-3.
Manager Lindsey Meggs, understandably subdued after coming so close, told an Alabama newspaper, “It leaves a bitter taste in your mouth. The one loss overshadows all the wins. But there’s not a whole lot I would have done different.
“I told our guys after the ballgame it’s gonna hurt for a while. It just wasn’t our day.”
The signs were ominous.
Though Chico was the “home team,” entering through the winners’ bracket, the Cougars might as well have been playing at home. Columbus is located just across the Chattahoochee River separating Georgia from Alabama, host state for the series. An estimated 1,000 fans traveled the two-hour drive to Montgomery, site of the game, to witness their first World Series final in the school’s history.
Chico, gaining the reputation as the New York Yankees of Division Two, were sized up against a team from a school whose only claim to fame in its history was a golf championship. As Chico breezed through the winners’ bracket, Columbus staged one of the most remarkable runs since the tourney’s inception 35 years ago.
Granted, Columbus came to Montgomery ranked No. 4 nationally, but KPAY broadcaster Mike Baca, a seasoned veteran who has witnessed dozens of games over his six-year tenure of covering the series, qualified the game as “a classic David versus Goliath. Just getting here Columbus has pulled off one of the greatest Houdini acts in tournament history.”
Dubbed “Destiny’s Darlings,” Columbus would become the first team since Cal Poly in 1989 to lose its opening game then win five in a row, and only the fourth in tournament history. And they did it in dramatic fashion. Trailing 4-1 with two outs in the eighth against Delta State in its first elimination game, they rallied back to win 5-4.
And that was the easy one. Before meeting Chico, they pulled out two wins in extra innings, 4-3 in 12 and 5-4 in 13.
While the Cougars whistled past the graveyard on the way to the big game, the ‘Cats moonwalked through the winners’ bracket, outscoring opponents 42-6 in their three tournament wins, allowing the ‘Cats some much un-needed rest, taking the field just three times in eight days. All this down time may have worked against them.
On Sunday, for eight innings, the Cat batters looked flat. Really flat.
Playing their fifth game in three days on an amazing run of luck and poise, the Cougars and their pitcher Jason Burdette silenced the potent Wildcat offense, allowing just five hits and one unearned run entering the ninth.
Then the implausible nearly happened.
In the bottom of the ninth, with the score 5-1 in Columbus’ favor, Chico almost stuffed that “Destiny” moniker down the Cougars’ collective throat. Keeping the ‘Cats off balance with a wicked curveball and some serious 90-mph heat, Burdette was tossing a sweat-drenched masterpiece, until he surrendered singles to Ryan Lash, Miguel Mendoza and Rich Janeway, sending the tying run to the plate with nobody out.
The overwhelming pro-Columbus din all sticky afternoon went stone silent when Chico’s designated hitter Jimmy Lintt drilled the third pitch an estimated 370 feet to the deepest part of Valdestra State’s Paterson Field. Unfortunately, the fence was built 375 feet from home plate, though a tag-up run did come home. Chico pushed across another, making it 5-3.
With two down and men on the corners, Chico sent up the winning run in the form of Steve Newson. Newson, batting over .500 in the series, drove the ball to deep center … straight into the glove of the Columbus centerfielder, ending the ‘Cats most prodigious season ever.
On Monday, Collegiate Baseball Newspaper named the Columbia State Cougars No. 1 and the Chico State Wildcats No. 2 for 2002.