Fresno State: Worst to first

Jeff Passan
Yahoo! Sports

OMAHA, Neb. – In an empty locker room, they sat side by side, the two protagonists from the unlikeliest of champions. Justin Wilson, the pitching hero, rubbed his left calf. He isn't exactly the athletic type, and a minute earlier, he had strained it trying to take off his spikes without untying the laces. Steve Detwiler, his hitting counterpart, reached into his bag, plucked out a ball and told Wilson it was the final one, the one he squeezed to make Fresno State the lowest-seeded team to win an NCAA title in any sport.

Just then, Brandon Burke, who closed out the Bulldogs' 6-1 victory in Game 3 of the College World Series finals Wednesday against Georgia, burst in with a proclamation.

"We are the worst team to win ever," Burke said.

Maybe so, though Fresno State – entering the tournament 89th in the Ratings Percentage Index, with a roster made up entirely of Californians who supposedly weren't good enough to attend the state's powerhouse schools, carrying eight seniors and no stars, trying to shake a miserable athletic reputation fostered by a scandal-ridden men's basketball team and $17 million handed out this year to settle gender-equity lawsuits – certainly made for great drama.

Amid the celebratory chaos, Steve Susdorf lugged the championship trophy across the Rosenblatt Stadium field, first toward the stands, which he scanned before mouthing to someone, "I love you," then back toward the middle, where his teammates itched to touch their chalice.

"I can't fully comprehend this," said Susdorf, the best of the eight seniors, who turned down a $50,000 bonus from the Detroit Tigers last year to finish his civil engineering degree and play one more season. "I'm looking at this thing, and I can't believe it. Am I holding this?

"There were no first-round draft picks on this team. It was just a bunch of really good players, everybody contributing together, and that's what got it done. Just goes to show you anybody can win this thing if you have a good team."

Which is rather amusing, because at the end of March, the Bulldogs didn't have a good team. They lost 12 of their first 20 games. They lost ace Tanner Scheppers to a mysterious shoulder ailment. Winning the Western Athletic Conference got them a postseason bid, and along the way they vanquished powerhouse after powerhouse, staving off elimination five times before the decisive game against Georgia.

Fresno State knew pressure, though doing so did nothing to zap nerves. So during the eighth inning, even though FSU led 6-1, Jil Wilson paced around the concourse. Her brother had pitched the game of his life, limiting Georgia to five hits and striking out nine, and Detwiler, whose left thumb needs surgery for a torn ligament, had smacked two home runs and driven in all six. Jil's thumbs stepped up, too, punching the keys on her cell phone, texting like mad, all to while away the time until the impossible actually happened.

Eventually, she returned to her seat to see Detwiler catch the final out, to see gloves go airborne, to watch second baseman Erik Wetzel fly over the entire dogpile next to the mound, to hear her dad, Jim, yell, "We did it," to listen to her brother say he loves her to a national TV audience.

She tried to take a picture. Her hands shook too much to focus.

Wilson, the cherub-faced junior selected in the fifth round of the draft by Pittsburgh, lifted the trophy toward his family. He smiled and looked like a Cabbage Patch Kid. Kris Tomlinson, the junior reliever whose follicular oddities served as good-luck charms to Fresno State – he grew out a mullet, added a mustache, sheared the top of his head into a Mohawk, shaved that off for a skullet and finally buzzed the FS logo into his leftover hair – was so excited he ran smack into the head of teammate Jake Floethe and sported a nasty shiner. One player stole the rosin bag off the mound, another treasure from a night full of them.

"This is what America's about," said Karol Hargrove, Wilson's grandmother. "Family and baseball."

Family delivered Wilson to Fresno State. He went to high school in Clovis, a Fresno suburb two miles from the school campus, and he didn't want to stray far from home. Mining the state for talent is Batesole's only option, the school's recruiting budget thin and baseball scholarships limited, and doing so with Fresno State running behind Cal State Fullerton, Long Beach State, Stanford, USC, UCLA, Pepperdine, San Diego, UC Irvine and Cal in reputation makes it even tougher.

Batesole came to Fresno State with the reputation of making something out of nothing, taking an unheralded 1996 Cal State Northridge team to the cusp of the College World Series.

"You outwork 'em," Batesole said. "You bring in great players and let them play."

Like Tommy Mendonca, the lightly recruited third baseman who won the Most Outstanding Player by tying a College World Series record with four home runs. And Burke, the senior closer who went undrafted and probably won't pitch again, his arm "absolutely killing" him after getting called on time and again by Batesole. And Susdorf, who carried a 4.0 grade-point average while winning WAC Player of the Year.

"You can do it right," Batesole said.

In the back of the conference room, John Welty nodded. The president of Fresno State has seen the school through impossible times – the lawsuits, the lack of institutional control, the murder of a student by a former men's basketball player – and survived calls for his head. He relished the win as much as the hundreds who flew from Fresno to witness it and the thousands back at home who watched it.

They had seen their Bulldogs recover from a harrowing Game 1 loss when Burke blew the game. Detwiler blamed it on himself. He hadn't eaten his customary lucky Chicago Seven calzone at the local Old Chicago. He did before Game 2, and Fresno State crushed Georgia 19-10. And he did again on Wednesday, and whether it meant anything he didn't really care as he and Erik Wetzel and first baseman Alan Ahmady celebrated in right field. Over their heads and past the stadium wall, a beam of red – Fresno State's color – reflected off the only two clouds in an otherwise-clear sky.

Eventually, all of them made their way back to the clubhouse to gather their belongings. They stuffed the championship T-shirts and hats and watches into their bags. Burke was giddy when he learned they were going to take the folding chairs home, and he wanted to know what else in the stadium was fair game.

"Sweet memories," Batesole said.

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