College of Charleston baseball coach Monte Lee considered the team's pitching staff to be the biggest question mark heading into its first season in the Colonial Athletic Association.
As it turned out, Lee had nothing to worry about as the Cougars' pitching staff turned out to be their biggest strength.
For the third straight day, the Cougars got a strong pitching performance - this one from freshman Tyler Thornton - as College of Charleston defeated William & Mary, 6-4, to capture the CAA tournament championship Saturday afternoon at Brooks Field in Wilmington, N.C.
The Cougars (41-17), who claimed the CAA title in their first year as a league member, will make their sixth NCAA baseball regional appearance next weekend. It's only the second time in program history the Cougars have won a conference tournament title, the other coming in the Southern Conference in 2006.
Freshman right-hander Tyler Thornton threw eight strong innings to lead the Cougars over the Tribe for the second time in two days. Thornton allowed just four hits and tied a career high with eight strikeouts over his eight shutout innings to improve to 6-5 on the season. At one point, Thornton retired 10 straight batters.
Thornton's performance came less than 24 hours after tournament MVP Bailey Ober pitched a complete-game five-hitter in a 3-1 victory over the Tribe on Friday afternoon in the tournament semifinals. Sophomore Taylor Clarke picked up a 7-4 win over UNC Wilmington in opening round of the tournament.
In three tournament games, the Cougars' starting pitchers threw 24 innings, giving up 15 hits, five earned runs with 19 strikeouts, while walking just three batters. Charleston posted a staff ERA of 2.00, limiting the high-powered William & Mary offense, which led the CAA in hitting during the regular season, to just two earned runs in two games. All three Charleston starters lasted at least seven innings.
Not too bad for a pitching staff that lost nearly 75 percent of their innings from 2013.
"It's amazing to see three guys - a sophomore and two freshman - mature and to be able to do what they've done during the tournament," Lee said. "The pitching staff exceeded my expectations and (pitching coach) Matt Heath deserves a lot of the credit. I don't know if I've had three young pitchers be more consistent than Clarke, Ober and Thornton have been this season. To see Ober and Thornton pitch the way they did against William & May in back-to-back games was tremendous. Ober and Thornton just shut them down the last two days and pitched tremendous games."
The Cougars had struggled at times at the plate all season, but came with up some timely hits during the tournament.
"We were able to score some runs in the tournament, even in the 3-1 game on Friday against William & Mary, we were able to put a couple of hits together and make something happen," Lee said. "Our offense stepped up big during this tournament and we were able to put the pressure on William & Mary early on. When we can produce runs from all parts of the order like we did today, combined with our pitching, we can be very dangerous."
This will be the third NCAA regional appearance for Lee, but he admitted this one might be the most satisfying.
"This is special because we won the tournament," Lee said. "We knew going into this weekend we were going to have to earn it. It's a little more special when you have to go out and earn it."
Offensively, Charleston freshman first baseman Nick Pappas went 4 for 4 and scored three runs, while senior designated hitter Ben Boykin was 2 for3 with three RBIs.
"It's been an up-and-down year for me, so to finish it like I did and to win a conference championship is something I'll remember the rest of my life," Pappas said. "I was seeing the ball pretty well all tournament."
After being limited to pair of hits over the first three innings by Tribe starter Bryson Kauhaahaa (1-3), the Cougars broke through in the fourth. Pappas drilled a leadoff double down the right-field line and advanced to third on a sacrifice bunt by Ryan Welke. Boykin then lined a sharp single through a drawn-in infield to score Pappas for a 1-0 lead.
The Cougars added another run in the fifth when second baseman Blake Butler lifted a ball over the left-field fence for his third homer of the season.
Charleston extended its lead to 4-0 in the sixth on Boykin's two-run double.
The Cougars pushed the margin to 5-0 as Champ Rowland had a leadoff single and came home on Carl Wise's two-out single to left. The Cougars picked up their final run in the eighth inning when Pappas doubled and was able to come across on Morgan Phillips' sacrifice fly.
The Tribe nearly pulled off a dramatic comeback in their final at bat. Michael Katz had a one-out single to right off Cougars' closer Michael Hanzlik. Ryan Hissey walked and Gould singled to left to load the bases. Rowland was unable to handle a sharp grounder to short which allowed one run to score and another came across on a Kevin Casey's fielder's choice. Pinch hitter Devin White kept the rally going as he doubled to left center, cutting the deficit to 6-4 and putting the tying runs in scoring position.
However, Hanzlik got Ryder Miconi to ground out to second to secure the victory.
Pappas along with Ben Boykin, Carl Wise and Tyler Thornton were all named to CAA all-tournament team.
The Cougars will learn which regional they will go to on Monday during the NCAA tournament selection show, which will be televised by ESPNU at noon.