The problem with talking to members of the Salisbury baseball team — sorry, with the NCAA Division III champion Salisbury baseball team — is trying to get them to talk about themselves.
Reliever Corey Burton, the prodigious postseason pitcher out of Baltimore’s Archbishop Curley, talks about coaches having him prepared and his teammates backing him up rather than the five playoff and College World Series wins he produced with a 0.22 ERA in 17.2 innings.
Outfielder Kavi Caster from Crofton, Md., and South River High, in the middle of so many of the team’s rallies in the clutch, talked about how his brief time out allowed Scott Cameron’s bat into the lineup and the batting order to gel.
Head coach Troy Brohawn said “the culture” that led to the school’s first national baseball crown last week in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was in place before he came on board as head man seven years ago. Former head coach Doug Fleetwood and longtime assistant Ron Siers, now Brohawn’s associate head coach, deserve that credit, he stressed.
“I think it’s the culture and the expectations around here,” said Brohawn, who was pitching coach at Salisbury 2006-2009. “Coach Fleetwood and Coach Siers set a foundation here in 2000 that has lasted all the way up to 2021.”
Since 2000, the Sea Gulls have soared to 21 NCAA Regional appearances and five College World Series, including this year. But this year is the one Salisbury finally broke through for its first national baseball championship. And it’s obvious a lot of what they’re doing over there on the diamond on the Eastern Shore is about attitude.
“We play with a lot of confidence,” said Burton, who was on Archbishop Curley’s 2018 MIAA A Conference title team. “The success here is what attracted me. It’s just expected. There’s a drive to win and push hard for your teammates.”
It takes a village, or in this case, a flock of Sea Gulls to build that kind of team. Salisbury took no prisoners in the postseason, rolling to a 9-0 mark in NCAA Tournament play, outscoring five foes 42-31 in the CWS. Salisbury finished 34-4, winning the last 14 games, including sweeping to the Coast-to-Coast Conference tournament crown.
The Sea Gulls’ last loss was May 7, and it took Southern Virginia 23 innings to do it.
The journey ended June 8, with the 4-2 win against St. Thomas (Minn.), a program moving to Division I next season. The Sea Gulls swept the best-of-three series and became the first team since 2016 (Trinity of Texas) to go undefeated in the Division III CWS.
Caster had a big two-out, two-run single in the fourth inning to break a tie with the Tommies and make it 3-1 in the decisive game. Burton came in for 4.1 strong innings of relief to earn the win – his fifth in the tournament – allowing just four hits, one earned run, walking one and striking out three.
“In nine games, Corey had five of the wins,” Brohawn said. “It’s a tribute to the confidence we have in him to put him in to those games. The bullpen had been the one thing that hampered us in the past, but this year the guys solidified. We used him in a lot of tight games all year.”
Middle relief is one of the tougher jobs on a baseball team, but Burton thrives because of his team-first mantra.
“It’s about always being ready,” he said. “I feel I’m perfect for that. I trust my teammates and they trust me.”
While some of the other pitchers are in the outfield tossing before each game, Burton takes that time to find a seat in the dugout and visualize what his role may be that day, not just pitching out of jams, but actually imagining keeping the chart for other hurlers to help the cause.
“I care about my teammates more than myself, that’s what Coach Brohawn and Siers have taught me,” Burton said. “That’s what makes us so successful.”
The Sea Gulls opened CWS play with an 11-1 win against Cortland (N.Y.) but found themselves down 8-7 in the ninth inning to the Red Dragons two games later when trying to clinch their spot in the final round of the CWS.
Catcher Jacob Ference led off, hit by a pitch, and one out later, second baseman Cullen McAuliffe singled. Then center fielder Justin Meekins walked. Kavi Caster and Scott Cameron were hit back-to-back to force in the tying and go-ahead runs. An error on a ball shortstop Stephen Rice hit allowed two more runs and after recording three outs, the celebration was on.
“I haven’t had a better moment in my life,” Burton said.
Caster made a nice running catch in left field for the final out, another great moment for him in a postseason filled with them. The only downside?
“I was disappointed I was so far away,” he said of being late for the mandatory infield dogpile of Sea Gulls.
Caster, a sophomore, hit .367 with 18 runs scored and 13 RBIs in 13 postseason games, counting the conference tournament. He had missed eight games due to COVID-19 contact tracing and then a groin injury, sidelining an important bat. But junior St. Mary’s County native Cameron stepped right in and kept the hit parade going. Caster finished the season with a .371 average, and Cameron was at .365 in his 24 games.
“He tore it up,” Brohawn said of his veteran off the bench. “When Kavi came back we knew we had found our designated hitter. I think we played with a sense of urgency without [Kavi] and when he came back things just exploded.”
The Sea Gulls lost invaluable senior Jimmy Adkins, a two-way pitcher/infielder (.341 average, 1.50 ERA) from Delmar, Md., with a back injury after 14 games, but that couldn’t stop this team either. Laurel, Md., senior Clayton Dwyer was the bell cow on the mound with a 10-0 record, 2.18 ERA, three saves and 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Meekins, a senior from Berlin, Md., and Dwyer both earned All-America honors (second team by ABCA/Rawlings and D3Baseball.com for Dwyer and fourth team from D3Baseball.com for Meekins).
Meekins hit .387 and tied Caster for the team lead with 39 RBIs this season. He finished as one of just 10 Sea Gulls ever with more than 200 career hits and ranks in the SU top 10 in games, on-base percentage, at-bats, runs, RBI, homers, total bases, walks, steals, HBPs and sacrifice hits and flies.
Dwyer, Meekins, Adkins, Caster and lefty pitcher Jackson Balzan (9-1 record, 2.26 ERA, 11.6 strikeouts per nine innings) were all named to the All-South Region team this year. Dwyer was South Region Pitcher of the Year.
“The confidence level of these guys has always been great, but this year was really special,” said Brohawn.
Brohawn, a Cambridge, Md., native, took particular satisfaction in finally seeing the championship trophy come to Salisbury and the Maryland Eastern Shore. This was the second CWS appearance for his Salisbury teams, but the baseball-lifer also has the Major League World Series on his resume, as well. He pitched a scoreless inning for the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series against the New York Yankees.
“I told our guys when you’re playing in the World Series you can have some kind of say in the outcome of the game,” he laughed. “As a coach, I haven’t pitched one game, fielded a ground ball and I haven’t hit a ball in the College World Series. Coaches can only put [players] in the best position to succeed and we had a lot of guys that did succeed.”
Brohawn hinted that after so many times — 21 straight regional appearances — the Sea Gulls finally got a break here or there, too.
“You have to have the balls roll your way sometimes,” the coach said. “We had a little bit of everything this postseason — confidence, luck, we pitched well, played solid defense, some timely hitting, some comeback wins.”
Mostly, the Sea Gulls had a belief that this was their time.
“We won a lot of games this season, games where we played from behind, too, and that helped build our confidence,” Caster said. “We just played our style of game, stayed calm and relaxed.”
Well, that is, until the last out and the race to jump into a pile of teammates to celebrate.
Photo Credits: d3photography.com