BOCA RATON, Fla. – In a season of cancer battles, late position changes and a difficult schedule, the Florida Atlantic University baseball team fought, overcame and triumphed.
With three senior outfielders, five junior infielders and an experienced pitching staff, the preseason looked promising for the 2016 squad. As autumn arrived, however, cancer diagnoses to both Head Coach John McCormack and catcher Kevin Abraham stunned the program. Questions begin to arise in regards to who would be able to fill the role of starting catcher and how much would Coach McCormack’s treatments impact the season?
While some were concerned about if the season would live up to the preseason expectations, doubts never crept into the minds of the Owls.
“This year had its share of surprises both on the field and off,” McCormack said. “It is the most gratifying season I’ve ever been a part of.”
Just days before opening weekend, Abraham discovered he was in remission and Coach Mac had not missed a single practice. Sophomore Gunnar Lambert and freshman Tyler Frank stepped up and embraced the opportunity to play catcher – a position neither had seen in competition in years.
February 19th came quickly and fiercely as the Owls opened the year with a doubleheader against South Dakota State and then-No. 15 Mississippi State. Abraham remained in South Florida to receive treatments and Coach Mac was forced to miss a trip for the first time in his head coaching career. Assistant Coach Jason Jackson assumed the skipper duties while the other assistants kept the team focused and the Owls drew upon off the field battles to surprise the baseball world and propel themselves into the national spotlight. FAU posted 21 runs over the first two games – including a 10-6 win against the Bulldogs in one of the most storied atmospheres in the nation.
Another question in the minds of Owl fans entering the campaign was who would fill the shoes of Kyle Miller and Drew Jackson – starting pitchers who signed professional contracts after the 2015 season. The emphatic answer came the very next day as sophomore newcomer Marc Stewart stymied the Mississippi State lineup, dealing six shutout innings with just two hits as the Owls shut out the Bulldogs 4-0. The Owls completed the weekend with another win over SDSU to return home a perfect 4-0 on the year. Esteban Puerta paced the high-powered offense and earned Conference USA Hitter of the Week with eight RBI, 10 hits and a .625 average for the opening weekend.
After the Owls leapt to No. 18 in the polls, Kevin Abraham rejoined his baseball family in the dugout on Feb. 26. While not in a uniform or in the lineup, his presence rang throughout the FAU Baseball Stadium. With a smile on his face, No. 33 Abraham threw out the first pitch of FAU’s home opener and proceeded to watch his teammates score their fitting 33rd run en route to their fifth-consecutive win. David McKay dealt an incredible 14 strikeouts in the first of a three-game sweep of LIU Brooklyn, propelling FAU to a No. 15 national ranking.
Even in suffering their first loss of the year on March 4, the Owls showed their resiliency. Down 13-3 in the bottom of the ninth, ten of the first 11 batters reached safely, bringing home eight runs to place the tying run in scoring position before the eventual 13-11 loss. The fighting spirit never faded as FAU rebounded to open the season 12-1.
The Owls opened their third season in Conference USA with a road trip to Middle Tennessee. After a close loss in the opener, FAU stormed back to take the series, scoring 25 runs over the three games. Stephen Kerr was named the C-USA Hitter of the Week for his performances.
Kerr kept the momentum going into a mid-week battle, launching a lead-off solo home run to put FAU atop No. 1 Florida in Gainesville before the Gators battled back to win the 2-1 contest.
Back in league play, the Owls dominated their next six games with series sweeps of UAB and Old Dominion, including dealing the Monarchs their first mercy-rule loss in more than 20 years.
After knocking off UCF in an 11-inning mid-week contest, FAU suffered its first series loss at the hands of Charlotte in early April, featuring a 15-inning affair – the longest in program history.
Once more, the Owls responded. CJ Chatham scored the game-winning run in the 11th inning in the opener at Marshall as FAU won yet another series.
At 26-8, the Owls were drawing attention from the national media. That elevated on April 20 in an in-state battle between two ranked teams. The No. 17 Owls proved their talents in Coral Gables, defeating No. 1 Miami 4-3. Senior Billy Endris scored the go-ahead run and Austin Langham drove in CJ Chatham in the top of the eighth before Devon Carr and Cameron Ragsdale shut down the powerful Hurricane offense to demand the nation take notice.
After tough battles at FIU, FAU returned home to host No. 14 Southern Miss in a critical Conference USA battle with title implications on the line. Chatham put the team on his back and dismantled USM’s highly-touted pitching staff with six RBI, five runs, two doubles, a triple and a homer to earn C-USA Hitter of the Week as the Owls won the crucial series.
FAU rode the momentum into the next week’s battles against UTSA, sweeping the roadrunners with senior Christian Dicks hitting a game-winning homer in the series opener and Endris recording five hits in the second game to get closer to the top spot in the C-USA standings.
Mid May featured an all-out battle between two of the league’s top squads as FAU made the trip to face No. 13 Rice. Either team had the opportunity to take the lead in the C-USA standings with a sweep, but mother nature had other ideas. Rice took game one before FAU throttled the home Owls 10-3 in game two. The rubber match showed promise for a great game, but was canceled in the fourth inning due to weather.
FAU, Southern Miss, Marshall and Rice all entered the final weekend with a chance to take home the regular-season crown. The cancelation of the Rice game put FAU in a precarious situation, needing a sweep and help from other league teams.
In the first game in the final regular-season series against WKU, FAU came from behind twice and freshman catcher Tyler Frank drove in the winning run on a walk-off sacrifice fly in the 12th inning. With the C-USA title in their sights, the Owls walloped WKU 10-2 in the second game and closed out the series sweep with a 4-1 win in a rain-delayed game ending Saturday morning. As the dust settled in games around the league, FAU captured its first C-USA championship in just its third season in the league.
“Everyone stepped up in a big way,” McCormack said. “The players and coaches were resilient all season. It was great to watch and be a part of it.”
The Owls earned the No. 1 seed in the C-USA Tournament, held in Hattiesburg, Miss. FAU knocked off Charlotte in the opener. After a pair of extra-inning losses, the Owls returned home to prepare for another NCAA Regional appearance.
FAU was selected as the No. 2 seed in the Coral Gables Regional, along with Long Beach State, Stetson and host Miami.
LBSU took the opening game 5-1 to send the Owls to the consolation bracket. Facing elimination against Stetson on the second day, more heroes unveiled themselves. Down 4-3 in the eighth inning, senior Brett Lashley belted a two-out, two-RBI double to drive in Frank for the game-winning run. Frank capped off the contest with his first career home run in the ninth inning. Senior Devon Carr dealt one of the best outings of his career, holding Stetson to just one hit with three strikeouts over the final three innings to keep the Owls alive.
FAU’s incredible season came to a close with a loss to LBSU, but the incredible story didn’t stop there.
The Owls saw five players taken in the 2016 MLB Draft, including the highest pick in program history as CJ Chatham was selected by the Boston Red Sox in the second round. Chatham’s final collegiate campaign impressed fans and media around the nation as he was named the Conference USA Player of the Year, C-USA Defensive Player of the Year, Golden Spikes Award semifinalist, Brooks Wallace semifinalist and First Team Louisville Slugger All-American, and numerous other All-American honors to become one of the most-decorated players in FAU baseball history.
Pitchers Brandon Rhodes, Marc Stewart and Cameron Ragsdale – who finished the regular-season ranked fifth in the nation in saves - were named Second Team All-Conference USA and Nick Swan and Tyler Frank each earned a spot on the All-Freshman squad. Ragsdale and Chatham also earned All-Region honors.
David McKay, Colyn O’Connell, Robbie Coursel and Billy Endris were each drafted and Devon Carr signed a free agent contract as McCormack’s contingency of former players continuing their professional careers swelled to more than 100.
“I will always look back on this year with a special fondness,” McCormack said. “It reinforces to me that we are making a difference in the players’ lives, as they are in mine.”
Carr, Coursel, Endris joined Brett Lashley, Christian Dicks and Brandon Rhodes as seniors whose careers came to an end at FAU. All six were key contributors for the Owls in 2016 and FAU will have a tall task in finding their replacements, but if 2016 proved anything, the FAU baseball program thrives under pressure.